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Nic Cage and Nick Cassavetes in Prisoners of the Ghostland

Prisoners Of The Ghostland review, Sundance 2021: “A film so unhinged it makes Nic Cage’s average output look like a regency drama”

(Image: © Sundance)

Our Verdict

For better and worse Nic Cage is entirely unchained in a samurai western that defies convention.

There’s a moment in Prisoners Of The Ghostland, Japanese director Sion Sono’s gonzo East-meets-Western, where Nic Cage gets his nuts blown off. Fortunately one little Nic survives, and Cage’s surprisingly unfazed character is back on his feet lickety-split, but it’s a noteworthy moment because: a) how many films have you see where the hero’s balls are blown up? and b) it’s approximately the 17th strangest thing that happens in Prisoners of the Ghostland, a film so unhinged it makes Cage’s average output look like a regency drama.

Cage stars as Hero, a notorious felon who’s been in a cell ever since a bank robbery gone wrong resulted in the death of half a dozen innocent bystanders, including a gumball masticating boy whose murder haunts Hero. Half a life sentence later, Hero is sprung by The Governor (Bill Moseley), an imitation Colonel Sanders who now holds Samurai Town under an iron grip. The Governor offers Hero a deal – rescue his beloved Bernice (a game Sofia Boutella) from the Ghostland and walk away with his freedom. There’s one catch: to stop him from absconding or hurting Bernice, Hero is rigged with explosives, and with the clock ticking Hero’s nuts are literally on the line.

It’s a strange opening gambit, for sure, but Sono’s singular vision is defiantly demented to the last. Cage has made his fair share of oddball movies in recent years – some (Mandy, Color Out Of Space) more successful than others (pretty much everything else) – but in Sono he may have found a soulmate, a filmmaker so attuned to his weirdo wavelength you’ll be cursing the fact it took the pair this long to collaborate. While production and costume design owes a significant debt to Mad Max, and the setup is lifted wholesale from John Carptenter’s Escape From New York, the pairing has produced a uniquely barmy apocalyptic vision.

Hero finds Bernice almost instantly – one of the many ways the script resolutely refuses to take the expected route – but soon learns that once someone enters the Ghostland, they never leave. The Ghostland itself is an impressive bit of set design with a central square built around a steam-powered clock tower that keeps the town and its peculiar denizens frozen in time. Constructed on irradiated earth, the Ghostland is guarded by a spectral prison bus full of nuclear mutants that materialises whenever anyone tries to escape. In the film’s only sincere attempt at real-world relevance over off-the-wall lunacy, Japan’s horrifying nuclear history is consciously reflected in the film’s forsaken wasteland.

But before there’s any risk of the film taking itself too seriously, Hero is having a katana grafted to his arm to battle cowboys, samurai, and any other carnival character that happens to walk into frame. It’s unabashed B-movie madness, and everyone involved is in on the joke, including Cage who’s usually the punchline. At one point he bellows the word ‘testicle’ in a manner that can only be described as life-changing. Sono doesn’t so much as unleash Cage here, as construct an entire playground around him, and fine-tune it to his bizarre sensibilities.

There’s much that might traditionally be considered shortcomings, like the non-existent character development, obvious use of stunt doubles for generally underwhelming fight sequences, laughably flowery dialogue ("They say you’re a veritable phantasm"), and the just-go-with-it fusion of Eastern and Western cultures; but typical criticisms scarcely apply here. Prisoners of the Ghostland exists entirely outside the norms and conventions of moviemaking. Really there’s only one word to describe it: nuts.

For more Sundance coverage, be sure to check out our Sundance 2021 preview on all the must-see movies from this year's festival. 

The Verdict

3 out of 5

Prisoners of the Ghostland

For better and worse Nic Cage is entirely unchained in a samurai western that defies convention.

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Jordan is the News Editor at Total Film magazine, running the opening pages of every issue. Jordan was previously Community Editor at SFX. You'll find his name on news, reviews, and interviews covering every type of film. You can read his dispatches from Cannes Film Festival 2022 right here on GR+ every day for the next two weeks.