Prisoners of the Ghostland [Sundance Film Festival Review]

Japanese director Sian Sono is known for bold, bizarre films like Why Don't You Play in Hell? and Cold Fish. Having him team up with Nicolas Cage promises hard-core cinematic craziness. On that count, Prisoners of the Ghostland does not disappoint. Even if its reach slightly exceeds its grasp, the picture's pure unpredictability is consistently entertaining. It's safe to say there's never been anything quite like this.

The story is set in Samurai Town, an unusual place that's half ancient Japanese village, half Wild West town. People in kimonos reside alongside people wearing cowboy hats, and traditional Japanese architecture exists next to dusty saloons. Cage plays the unnamed Hero, a bank robber who gets caught after a heist goes violently wrong. He gets a chance at freedom when the Governor (Bill Moseley) makes him an offer. Hero will go free if he ventures into the mysterious Ghostland right outside of town to rescue a missing girl, Bernice (Sofia Boutella). To ensure compliance, Hero is forced to wear an outfit loaded with explosives that will detonate if he tries anything funny. If he gets turned on by Bernice, for example, one near his genitals will go boom.

Once in the ghostland, the film takes on elements of Mad Max. It's a wasteland where Hero finds an impoverished group of people trying to stop time by holding back the hands of a gigantic clock. (I don't get it either, but whatever.) After locating Bernice, he has to figure out how to get back to town, since ominous apparitions block reentrance.

Prisoners of the Ghostland, with its visual mash-up of genres, is always fascinating to look at. Sono builds an original world, having fun combining disparate elements in unexpected ways. We feel truly plunged into this place, and that helps set the stage for the plot's increasingly weird events. Normal stuff would seem boring in such an outrageous locale, so outrageous occurrences are required. Sono additionally provides some excellent action sequences involving swordplay. The movie doesn't have a ton of action, yet what's here is skillfully done.

On his end, Cage once again relishes the chance to go crazy onscreen. His trademark oddball delivery of dialogue is on full, hilarious display. (The way he says the word "testicle" in one scene made me laugh out loud.) In some of his recent efforts, Cage's desire to go over the top has felt unjustified. This time, such over-emoting is entirely appropriate. After all, he has to keep up with his director.

Prisoners of the Ghostland doesn't have a lot going on in terms of storytelling complexity or character development. The movie is designed as an exercise in gonzo style. There are definitely spots when some expansion of those things would have been welcome. Bernice, for example, is a completely one-dimensional damsel in distress. Without more depth, all the kooky goings-on intermittently feel empty.

That caveat aside, the film is irresistible in its desire to show you something new, whether it's an exploding gumball machine or a clan of people whose behavior appears directly influenced by rats. Prisoners of the Ghostland may not be Sono's best work (nor Cage's, for that matter), but it absolutely hits the spot if you're in the mood for something hypnotically berserk.

Prisoners of the Ghostland


Prisoners of the Ghostland is unrated, but contains adult language and strong bloody violence. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.