Nicolas Cage recently delivered what many are calling a career-best performance in drama Pig, which showcased a side of the actor that many people had forgotten even existed. It was quiet, introspective and a powerful reminder that the Academy Award winner isn’t all about bug-eyed mania and eccentric vocal deliveries; he’s a committed, chameleonic and intensely talented performer.
Now imagine the exact opposite, and you’re nowhere near halfway to imagining what Prisoners of the Ghostland is. This is Cage at his most unhinged and scenery-devouring. And yet, it’s still another fantastic turn from the resurgent actor, even if he most definitely wasn’t lying when he said this might be the most insane movie he’s ever been a part of.
Trying to describe Prisoners of the Ghostland is difficult to say the least, simply because there’s so much going on at any one time that it barely pauses for breath across the 103-minute running time. Cage stars as Hero, a violent criminal being held captive in the post-apocalyptic village of Samurai Town, a place that’s the aesthetic love child of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone. This doesn’t factor into the plot in the slightest; it’s just there for no real meaningful reason other than looking cool.
Freed from the local jail by B-movie legend Bill Moseley’s Governor, Hero is entrusted with a special task. He needs to venture out into the wilds beyond Samurai Town to rescue the Governor’s granddaughter from a cabal of feral natives. So far, so standard, right? Not quite. Our protagonist is then strapped into a leather jumpsuit with explosives at the arms, neck and testicles. If he fails to complete his mission within the allocated timeframe, he’ll go boom. Immediately, Hero discards the car provided to set off on a children’s bicycle instead. Again; this happens for no discernible reason.
You may have heard rumors about Prisoners of the Ghostland featuring one of the most Nicolas Cage scenes ever, and the whispers are all true. At one stage, and it can’t be stressed enough that there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever for a lot of things that happen in the movie, he screams the word “testicles” for roughly fifteen seconds. It’s a guttural yell that on the surface exists solely to create another batch of memes, but it’s nonetheless glorious in its execution and delivery.
Director Sion Sono is regarded as a provocateur, so by his usual standards, Prisoners of the Ghostland is positively restrained. There are sword fights, hallucinogenic visions, zombies, ghosts, a ramshackle city inhabited by scavengers, people punished by being trapped inside mannequin-esque plaster molds, nuclear holocausts, influences that range from the aforementioned Kurosawa and Leone to Alejandro Jodorowsky, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Terry Gilliam, George Miller and more, neon-drenched backdrops, vast open plains, bizarre needle drops, haunting imagery, some beautiful cinematography and bursts of violent and highly-stylized action with blood geysers aplenty.
Make no mistake, Prisoners of the Ghostland is batsh*t insane. Is it a crazy Nicolas Cage movie, or a crazy movie that Nicolas Cage coincidentally signed on for, though? It would be just as wild if anybody else played the lead role, so it’s probably the latter, but we’re talking about cinema’s premiere avant-garde A-lister clad head-to-toe in leather, wearing a football helmet and wielding a blade attached to his arm that he uses to slice and dice his way through a pack of enemies, so you’re either fully on board with the premise or you need to steer well clear.
It’s in essence a very standard point A to point B and back again rescue story, but everything that happens in between is something that’s equal parts madness and brilliance. Sono and Cage knew exactly what they were doing, and they’ve handled the wild tonal shifts and gonzo genre mashups with no shortage of style and finesse, but it’s hard to see Prisoners of the Ghostland becoming much more than a cult classic.
People are going to check it out because they want to see Nicolas Cage lose his mind, and he does that on numerous occasions, but there isn’t much beneath the surface of Prisoners of the Ghostland for more discerning viewers to sink their teeth into. You could come up with ten different interpretations of what it’s all supposed to mean in the grand scheme of things, and they’re all more than likely to be a million miles wide of the mark.
That being said, if you strap in tight and prepare for a wild ride, there are ten tonnes of fun to be had watching the singular and unique vision of an uncompromising (and almost certainly missing a screw or two) filmmaker strike a deft balance with the only leading man in the business capable of getting onto the same level.