Sundance 2021: ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ Review
Samurai Town isn’t a frontier for just anyone. A treacherous town, unforgiving with only the strong surviving. It’s in Samurai town that we find our imprisoned Hero (Nicolas Cage). Stuck rotting in a cell due to a robbery gone wrong. However, a change in luck has him released from prison by the Governor (Bill Moseley). Now, a chance for freedom has presented itself. His mission? Save the Governor’s granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella). She went missing, presumably somewhere in the haunted Ghostland, from where no one ever returns. What follows is what is probably the most insane and visceral movie to come out of Sundance this year.
Director Sion Sono makes a compelling and aesthetically pleasing film with a lot of flair. Moreover, Prisoners of the Ghostland is more style than substance. Let’s establish that right away. The film explores some surface level themes like guilt and redemption. All of its strengths lie in the way it looks and feels. From the moment the film starts we are treated to beautiful cinematography and set design. Samurai Town feels like a world fully realized thanks to the costumes, sets, and characters. Speaking of characters, Prisoners of the Ghostland certainly has an interesting assortment of them.
Nicolas Cage as Hero is the highlight of the film. Hero is not a very subtle character. An archetypal protagonist who delivers their dialogue with explosive intensity. Moreover, in typical unhinged Nicolas Cage fashion, Hero is one of the more entertaining characters in the film. Cage has some really great material to work with. The absurdity of his situation makes for the best part of his character. Hero, after being set free, puts on a leather suit with bombs attached all over his body. If he becomes aggressive or doesn’t return in time, the suit will explode.
There are so many humorous situations that come from the bomb equipped suit. Hero has subdued moments trying to keep the suit from blowing off particular parts of his body. His attempts to keep cool in the face of losing important body parts in vicious explosives is hilarious. When Hero makes it to the Ghostland and rescues Bernice, his patience with her runs thin. She is a silent type that Hero can’t seem to get a word out of. Boutella as Bernice provides a very subdued performance. She brings a very strong presence despite her silence through most of the films runtime. Moreover, by the end she becomes a kick-ass heroine herself with some really great action sequences.
The story of Ghostland has some really high concepts in it as well. However, these concepts aren’t really full realized. The lore behind why Ghostland is the way it is and traps those who lives there is very interesting. The way director Sion Sono has his characters tell the story is also a beautiful moment of the film. However, the moment the lore becomes inconvenient for the story it is sort of put to the side, unfortunately. The story starts moving at a breakneck speed towards the beginning of the third act.
It’s an explosive ending with some amazing action sequences that compliment the set design. Samurai Town is the backdrop for the final confrontation between Hero and the Governor. The plot takes a turn from what started as a rescue mission. Prisoners of the Ghostland attempts to make the story interesting and exciting with its turns in opposing sides and new allies for Hero. Because of that, we have the great climactic showdown as mentioned earlier.
It’s in this last section of the film that Prisoners of the Ghostland really shines. There is a variety of action that plays like a homage to samurai and gunslinger films of old. The result makes for a beautiful blending of genres that surprises with how invested it has you in these absurd but beautifully choreographed fight scenes. A particular scene done in rhythm with a Jim Croce song is a highlight of the film for me. This is a classic example of a cheesy film playing to it’s strengths rather than trying to be something it’s not. This makes for the strongest part of the film and one that I think will make Prisoners of the Ghostland have some great rewatch value.
Overall, Prisoners of the Ghostland is a film with just enough absurdity, humor, and relentless action to make it a tolerable film. It’s not all there with it’s story and themes, but Nicolas Cage and Director Sion Sono with his sharp and focused vision create what is for sure the most diverse and out there film I’ve seen this year. It’s another Nicolas Cage cult classic in the making – Ernesto Valenzuela
Grade – 7/10