Time for us all to be free.
How can someone who just escaped still not be free? It’s a question Bernice (Sofia Boutella) must ask at the beginning of Sion Sono‘s English-language debut Prisoners of the Ghostland without knowing if she’ll ever discover an answer. She and two others fled Samurai Town the night before, shuffling off to the cheers of other abused and oppressed women once the men all turned in. Not knowing what to do next, they get in a car and drive off only for Sono to jump cut Bernice to a very different place with brand new dangers. Screenwriters Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai transport her from the realm of physical entrapment to a psychological prison of the mind. Our next inevitable encounter will find her too afraid to talk.
In the meantime, Sono and company bring out her potential savior in the form of an aggressive career criminal played by Nicolas Cage. When asked for his name, he replies, “Nobody.” When discovered to have “thick red blood” by the inhabitants of the Ghostland, he’s given the label “Hero.” Whether he’ll be able to earn it is still unknown considering the only reason he’s been sprung from jail is because The Governor (Bill Moseley)—Bernice’s adoptive grandfather—believes him to be violent enough to get past a gang of radioactive monsters patrolling the area between Samurai Town and Ghostland. Hero’s reputation precedes him so grotesquely, though, that extreme precautions are taken in the form of a leather jumpsuit rigged to explode at the thought of defiling his target.
The ask is simple: retrieve Bernice and bring her back. Hero has three days to find her and two more to return home if she speaks her name into the microphone affixed to his forearm. Failure equals death. Raise a hand to an innocent woman (Bernice or otherwise) and refuse to calm back down at the sound of the suit’s alarm? Bye-bye arm. Get aroused? Bye-bye testicle. Lucky for him, he has two of each … for now. Unlucky for him is the fact that surviving the radioactive horde means becoming trapped in Ghostland amongst the other wayward souls who’ve lost a piece of themselves along their personal journeys. Despite time “standing still” there thanks to hope being rendered into a distant dream, Hero can’t afford to delay.
Cage calls this film one of the “wildest” he’s ever made and the above should get you in the headspace to consider the validity of that statement is sound. It’s a Sono film, after all. I’ve only seen two others from his forty-year career and even I know what his name brings to a production. There are the tamer examples of comedic absurdity like giving Hero a Nissan to drive into the desert and save time only to watch him jump out and steal a bicycle instead. And there are the wildly darker bits of chaos like candy-colored bank heists leaving a child murdered and rampant allusions to pedophilia on behalf of The Governor’s main antagonist. My favorites lie in-between: decapitations in paper lanterns to mitigate the mess.
I think Cage’s statement says more about him than Sono, though, considering the craziest bits in Prisoners of the Ghostland seem mild when comparing them to the likes of his Japanese films. There are a lot of lulls to give Boutella the room for heavier emotion and Cage the latitude to open his eyes wide and go for broke. The fight scenes often feel lumbering in their choreography (save a couple instances with Tak Sakaguchi fulfilling the role of The Governor’s lieutenant Yasujiro and a late inclusion courtesy of Boutella herself) and the humor too reliant on screaming rather than comedy, but it all kind of plays into the left-of-center tonal peculiarities running rampant throughout. You can never quite tell whether what you’re seeing is real or imagined.
And that’s the point. These characters are trapped in a caricature of western meets action meets horror sensibilities with dead walking amongst living as guides and harbingers both. Parts feel like a low-rent Mad Max (not that the production value here is poor by any means) thanks to nuclear fallout and a lack of fuel, but Ghostland is led by a preacher rather than a tyrant. It’s civilization that harbors the real villains—their deeds transparent and repeated until normalized. Good people turn bad out of habit. Flashbacks find new vantages to expose faulty preconceptions. And fear in the unknown becomes cancelled out by knowledge. The people of Ghostland have been so caught up in the futility of their existence that they’ve forgotten what it means to fight.
Are they real enough to fight? I’m honestly not sure. There’s a big montage scene with everyone preparing for battle only to have Hero talk his way out of it so they can stay home. The whole is full of these abrupt shifts in scale to either smile about or grow increasingly frustrated in the reality that Sono seems to be holding back. Maybe it’s a narrative handcuff because everything is meant as metaphor with everyone being dead to experience their penance, but what does that mean for their dreams within that dream? It’s all a bit confounding—perhaps more than it is entertaining—and yet I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself. Was I ultimately left wanting more? Yes. But I harbor no regrets towards the journey.