I first became familiar with the unearthly cinematic joy of Sion Sono when I encountered the brilliance of his gonzo gangster musical Tokyo Tribe at Fantastic Fest back in 2014.
That led me down the road to discovering his magnum opus Love Exposure and I have been visiting his altar ever since. Prisoners of the Ghostland is his English Language directorial debut and while it encapsulates his gonzo flourishes and surreal aesthetics, it appeared to be missing something I couldn’t immediately put my finger on.
Don’t get me wrong, this jukebox bizarro supernatural western checks all of the boxes that cult aficionados like yours truly typically enjoy and this movie is overall fun, but there’s a couple of elements that I feel keep it from being the ultimate midnight movie it sets out to be. For one Nic Cage is miscast in this Snake Plissken type role where he’s forced to rescue the governor’s daughter or face the fatal repercussions bestowed by the corrupt governor played with sadistic glee by Bill Mosely, but only fares slightly better than Cage with his unhinged creative choices. He scuttles back and forth between low-key brooding and Mandy-level insanity that never came across as organic and often felt forced. I could see Willem Dafoe doing this role in his sleep.
The writers Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai appear to be channeling every gritty genre trope from the Zatoichi films to Sam Peckinpah, yet the detriment seems to come from the archetypal characters that have nothing to latch on to. They just appear to serve as referential figures on a grindhouse tribute canvas but aren’t as interesting or believable as Tarantino or Rodriguez would have written them.
I would like to see Sono write his own script again with his next feature because I believe he’s an auteur when it comes to filmmaking and he knows which stories he wants to show and how to show them. Watch Why Don’t You Play In Hell? and see for yourself. I don’t want to come across as like I didn’t have fun with this film, I just feel it had so much room for improvement and Sono sets a high bar for himself. Perhaps further viewings down the road will have me warm up to this picture more, but as of now, I feel just a tad underwhelmed.
In the treacherous frontier city of Samurai Town, a ruthless bank robber (Nicolas Cage) is sprung from jail by wealthy warlord The Governor (Bill Moseley), whose adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) has gone missing. The Governor offers the prisoner his freedom in exchange for retrieving the runaway. Strapped into a leather suit that will self-destruct within five days, the bandit sets off on a journey to find the young woman—and his own path to redemption.
Sion Sono’s delirious mash-up of Western, samurai and postapocalyptic thriller is a sly spoof of the mythical hero’s journey. Cage, in one of his most unhinged performances to date, swaggers through a wasteland populated by fearsome gunslingers, lethal swordsmen, vengeful ghosts, and a deranged desert cult. Working from a gonzo script by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, Sono orchestrates a large international cast through a kaleidoscope of upended exploitation tropes, balletic fight scenes, and audacious needle drops. Liberated from genre conventions, Prisoners of the Ghostland seems destined to conquer the midnight movie screens.