When you pair auteur Sion Sono and Nicolas Cage, there is an expectation for something utterly madcap. And Prisoners of the Ghostland is certainly gonzo, but is there meaning to the madness? It seems ironic that a film which contains so much bizarre imagery could feel so lackluster at the same time.
In Samurai Town, Cage’s Hero is sprung from jail by Bill Moseley’s The Governor, and tasked with finding his granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who has run away. The visuals of Samurai Town reflects the fusion statement of the film, where the women are dressed as geishas and the men as cowboys from a Western. To ensure Hero’s cooperation, he is fitted with a special wardrobe, which has explosives built into the suit, specifically placed at his neck and groin. If he should even feel a smidge of an arousal, things would get gnarly down under. You might think that this is a set-up for a mere joke, but believe me when I say that Sono’s style means that you should expect a man’s junk to explode.
And so off he goes. Cage has only one job in this film, and that’s acting angry all the time, be it spurning a car to instead ride a bicycle haphazardly across some desert area, or threatening to karate chop young children who want to drink his thick red blood. It’s meant to be over-the-top camp, yet despite his at times wacko performance, we mostly see restraint. Cage isn’t tonally on the same level as everyone else – they are theatrical but in a natural way, while he seems to be forcing certain hyperbolic mannerisms. It’s strange, since we have seen Cage do over-the-top effortlessly, and I think the dissonance is maybe because his character feels like such a blank slate that he has nothing to root the madness to.
It is the film’s visuals that distinguishes it, the movement between beautiful, surreal imagery to the grotesque is done so seamlessly. The conflation of eye-popping colours with horrifying images amplifies the ugly reality, where wide-eyed innocence is snuffed out for no good reason. Hero learns that actions have consequences, and he’ll need to work to redeem himself of his blood-soaked past, which involves freeing the prisoners of the Ghostland.
In the Ghostland, there is a suspension of time, with the big clock forever stuck at 8.14 after a nuclear disaster – an allusion to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima at 8.15. The citizens of the Ghostland are in limbo, stuck in a moment of time. While the world is more aesthetically pleasing in Samurai Town, there’s clearly a sense of enslavement there as well; the women forced to perform the role of costumed geisha, with The Governor keeping time over everyone. We understand now why Bernice chose to run away.
What I don’t enjoy much about the film is its tendency to spell things out for us – the gaps in the storytelling are filled in through Hero’s countless lurid visions, and characters explaining events to us. It’s a stylistic thing of course, but Sono paints so much better with silence, an example being Tak Sakaguchi’s Yasujiro, who doesn’t have dialogue in the film, and emotes expertly in every single scene he’s in. I would take that over Cage’s wild-eyed stare into the camera as he recounts his visions involving dead children up in heaven.
The fusion aspect of the film is ambitious, and, as usual, Sono’s work is visually pleasing and eye-catching stuff. However, the journey itself is kind of boring, especially since the hero feels secondary to the other subplots in play. If you enjoy watching Cage doing batty stuff, this might be the film for you. But for me, it just isn’t batty enough.
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It feels almost ironic to say it, but things just aren't madcap enough. Cage's performance in particular is restrained, especially when we consider what he's capable of.
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