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Sundance 2021 ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ Review: An Especially Bonkers Cage Adventure Kneecapped by Its Exhausting Maximalism

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
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Who among us hasn’t imagined one day hearing Nicolas Cage shrieking “testicaaaaaale” at the top of his lungs? Well, that day has come, thanks to boundary-pushing director Sion Sono’s latest balls-out romp, Prisoners of the Ghostland. Sono has already made over fifty films, but Ghostland is his first in English, and what better way is there to begin in this language than with an adventure starring an actor seemingly dedicated to screaming every English word known to man?

Such a combination is almost instantly satisfying. Eastern gonzo legend meets Western gusto legend — what’s not to like? But watching Prisoners of the Ghostland will quickly remind you that pure, unfiltered personality isn’t enough to sustain an entire film. The bones and basic energies of this film are stupendous, hilarious, and in a strange way even intermittently inspiring, but the end result is an exhausting mess, with a level of quirk and randomness that begins as charming but ends up plain irritating.

Should this hyper-stylized film grow to receive the cult status it nakedly begs for, historians will likely comb through every affected pout and eyebrow raise from Cage, trying to decide whether this is a transcendent lead performance that breaks the American “action hero” of lore down to his bare essentials — or if it is simply a perfunctory hand-me-my-check yell-fest.

Scene to scene, it’s hard to tell. Anyone who really loves to get in the Cage and who will watch whatever the man makes — regardless of any expectations of “restraint” or “sense” — will love this. As the man’s own rules for quintessential Cage cinema mandate, every line is either whispered or screamed (check!), and everything in the film is on fire, too, since much of the madness takes place in a smoldering radioactive wasteland populated by zealots and mutated peasants.

As the simply-named Hero, Cage is given a plethora of opportunities to go extreme-Cage, including blasting through a bank robbery screaming at the top of his lungs in the film’s first 20 seconds. There are plenty of hard stares and pulsating machismo, too, as well as some truly history-making quips, the most noteworthy of which are: “Impossible? HAAH!!!!,” “You know something, you people are all fucking nuts,” and the tattoo-ready “Hi-fucking-ya! Hi-fucking-ya.”

It’s great fun watching Cage’s absurdities go fully unchecked, but unfortunately, Sono’s absurdities are not always a productive match. The Western-indebted plot involves a feudalistic border town governed by the shyster Governor (Bill Moseley), who charges Hero with finding the kidnapped Bernice, played by a very game Sofia Boutella. The hook is that the leather bodysuit the Governor makes Hero wear is equipped with various small bombs, which are programmed to detonate individually if he fails in various aspects of his mission. And yes, two of these bombs adorn each “testicule,” a move designed to ensure things stay platonic between Hero and Bernice when they eventually meet. Needless to say, these come back to bite later on.

Hero sets out on his task with some hilariously petty moves, including opting to travel on a titchy bicycle rather than the Toyota provided. This joke is played to perfection, and similarly weird setups are so immediately funny it’s easy to expect Prisoners of the Ghostland to continue with this charmingly off-kilter playfulness. But a bizarre pallor of seriousness soon takes over, with the only respite from the frustratingly tangled subplots being Cage and Boutella’s deadpan chemistry.

Boutella is a curious presence here; she plays wonderfully off of Cage in a few of their shared scenes, but through no fault of her own, Bernice comes off as a slight, undeveloped character. Boutella’s talents are ultimately underused, considering she’s already demonstrated her hypnotic physicality (Kingsman, Star Trek) and dramatic chops (Atomic Blonde, Climax). And yet here she’s a rather cookie-cutter damsel-with-a-couple-of-kickass-moments, rather than the fully-fledged operator she is more than capable of embodying.

On the flip side, other characters get far too much screen time, including the Governor’s insufferable daughter, whose every moment is more irritating and abysmally stupid than the last. The same goes for many of the film’s frilly side characters, most of whom appear and disappear with a ferocious randomness that tires out the viewer’s goodwill. It’s a great diversion to have Cage hooting and hollering while fending off samurai-cowboy henchmen, but with action sequences and plot twists as indecipherable and inconsequential as these, the film gives us almost no reason to pay attention in between Nic’s amusing smolders.

That said, plenty of the film’s stylistic choices are certainly memorable, and some are even inspired. Though crass and puerile in execution, the idea of testicle bombs will not be easily forgotten. A morbid, pastel-hued motif of a shattering gumball machine recurs in various quick-cutting flashbacks, and contains the film’s best claim to genuine pathos. One nicely-crafted fight scene set to the mellifluous sounds of Jim Croce is instantly elevated by the soundtrack choice, even as the fight itself has almost no effect on the plot, and seems to have been included purely for decoration. 

This is the bizarre aesthetic of Prisoners of the Ghostland. At certain times, it’s delightfully pitched towards a friendly type of total insanity, but at others, it’s a repelling cacophony of cloying nonsense. Credit to Cage for committing way more than he had to; despite a fairly wooden exterior, he still brings his characteristic extreme confidence and coiled-snake energy to the proceedings. And credit, too, to Sono, for crafting a film with a ferocity and freneticism that feel tailor-made for Cage-level hysteria. In terms of willingness to reach total abandon, Sono and Cage are a great match. If only the film’s plot could catch up.

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