There’s a popular snowclone we cinephiles like to use every so often when describing a character who seems wonderfully out-of-place, as though they’re from a different movie entirely. Sion Sono’s weird western Prisoners of the Ghostland is filled with performers that seem to all be from countless different movies entirely, all with the acting chops of those two henchmen in Back to the Future Part 2 who manacially yell at Marty McFly about hoverboards not working on water (look it up). In Sono’s film, these characters inhabit one of two worlds: the picturesque Samurai Town or the makeshift tinker city of Ghostland.
Nicolas Cage plays Hero, an imprisoned bank robber in Samurai Town sent on a mission to find the adoptive granddaughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutella), of the local tyrant known only as “The Governor” (Bill Moseley). Hero is strapped with a suit planted with detonators: one on each arm, two at his throat, and two on his testicles. If he steps out of line, one or more of the detonators will go off. And you the director’s not going to let this movie end without letting us see at least one of Cage’s body parts blow up.
Hero is almost like a spiritual relative of Cage’s character in Willy’s Wonderland, who does peculiar things simply because of their “coolness” factor. Here, for no reason whatsoever, Hero inexplicably takes a kid’s bike instead of a car. Later, he engages in fisticuffs with a bad guy not nearly long enough after getting one of his body parts blown off. Almost nothing he does would make sense had the role been played by anyone other than Nicolas Cage.
If Michael Sarnoski’s achievement was turning Cage into a formidably mindful performer in this year’s surprise hit Pig, Sono provides the actor with the most fitting outlet for his insane cadences and unchained buckwildness (and also gives him a samurai sword and dialogue seemingly ripped straight out of a Paul Simon song). Cultivating an intentionally wonky tone, mostly from allowing each actor (including the extras) to do their own weird thing, Sano seems to acknowledge that he’s made a movie that might not be for everyone, even if his cerebral execution renders most of the symbolism murky.
Hero eventually tracks down Bernice in Ghostland, which proves to be harder to escape than he thought – although for the audience, it’s never quite clear why this is so, and the obstacle keeping them there turns out to be an easy one to overcome. Yet it still takes almost an hour to do so.
Writers Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai often can’t figure out how to fill in their second act, but their unique turn of phrase, which is given to the most bizarre cast I’ve ever seen, keeps this thing humming. With Cage at his most ludicrous, everyone else seems to follow suit. Everyone except for Boutella, who is the only one on screen actually making prudent acting decisions. She’s always the adult in the room and necessary to ground a film that desperately needs to be.
Sano, with help from production designer Toshihiro Isomi, does a great job juxtaposing the two locations. Samurai Town fuses together traits from Japanese society and the old American West, with colors as vibrant and real as a 1940s Disney animated movie, washed with reds that pop against the pinwheel of color surrounding it, and where rose petals perennially dust the air.
Ghostland, on the other hand, feels constructed from the ruins of an old, abandoned carnival haunted with eccentric characters such as the guy who turns any catatonic resident into a literal mannequin, or the group of men who day and night prevent the second hand on the giant clock from ticking.
Despite its dilapidated construction, Ghostland still sparkles like a graveyard of neon signs just begging to be turned on. It’s been deliberately dimmed by the local oppressor and Hero assumes the responsibility of helping them find their vibrancy again.
It’s the production design that drives the film even at its most pretentiously abstract. Though it’s not just the boldness of the colors, but the balance and contrast of the palette. When Sono, along with DP Sôhei Tanikawa, explores his milieu, it’s as though he’s sending us on a tour through a snow globe of handmade miniatures, well-crafted with crisp detail to look exactly like a dreamworld fantasy.
Likewise, the epic musical score by Joseph Trapanese (The Greatest Showman) makes the film feel bigger than it probably is, but also compliments every moment with the proper temperament without being intrusive.
There’s a chance I might look back at Prisoners of the Ghostland years from now and, like most critics, reevaluate it. It’s hard to believe that anyone is actually ready for a movie like this. While I found it difficult to find any emotional resonance with these strange characters, it’s also refreshing when a film dares to be this different, even if it’s mostly for the very sake of being different.