Prisoners of the Ghostland begins like a fever dream. Surreal fantastical colors, people with mysterious visages, and an overall chaotic sense of “what the hell is going on”. The sense of confusion doesn’t let up. The genre-bending is fun until it drowns out everything else in the film; while the film’s premise and plot are not confusing, these elements are muddled by everything else going on.
As a fundoshi-clad Hero (Nic Cage) exits a prison, women in kimonos and bold makeup yell at him to show them his balls. The mayor of this strange town, played by a white-suited Bill Moseley, instructs Cage that he must save his granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella). The catch? He’s got 5 days to accomplish this, or the leather suit the mayor gave Hero to wear will explode. The suits also got some other stipulations to it, but basically Cage is tasked with finding Bernice and bringing her back to the mayor safely.
If this premise sounds fun, it is – or rather, it could have been. Director Sion Sono’s first attempt at an English-language film is promising, but between overwhelming chaos and sometimes-mumbled dialogue, the story falls completely flat. As Hero makes his way through the Mad Max-esque Ghostland, the fever-dream does not let up, and ultimately becomes tiresome. While there are elements of camp, mostly thanks to Bill Moseley, there’s not enough of it. Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t taking itself too seriously, but it’s also just not that much fun.
Is Prisoners of the Ghostland visually impressive or just visually interesting? In order for a film to be visually impressive, it needs to have an engaging element. What films like The Green Knight lack in story often compensate with impressive scores and a sense of flowing visuals; Wes Anderson keeps his films engaging with reliable casts and comedy. While Prisoners of the Ghostland may keep you interested with bizarre imagery like strange masks and dancing, it lacks any compelling elements to keep you focused. There’s so much going on that, while this is definitely a great film to look up at every so often, it’s actually pretty boring.
Excellent costumes and set design, unfortunately, do not make a good film, or even an entertaining one — not even when Nicolas Cage is involved. At one point Hero finds himself aroused by Bernice, and the suit blows up one of his testicles. This moment could have been funny, but at this point in the film, there’s already been a bunch of ball-humor, and it’s really pretty exhausting. Prisoners of the Ghostland is full of bizarre and off-beat humor, and while it may work for some, many will find themselves rolling their eyes.
While Cage’s performance has been called one of his wildest, this may be due to the film’s wacky nature – it’s an unusual story, and an unusual mismatch of visual elements. It’s just not the sort of film that we’re used to watching. This being said, Cage’s performance is extremely on-brand. He’s aggressive and hyper-masculine, with minimal, raspy dialogue. It’s extremely similar to his role in Mandy.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is at its most interesting in flashback scenes, which call back to the film’s opening sequence. There’s a drama beyond the goofy premise of an exploding outfit, and a crisp composition to the shots that won’t visually overwhelm. Within the last act of the film, Nic Cage finally gets to really show off his fighting chops, and the film becomes a bit more entertaining again. Unfortunately, though, it’s too little too late, and not enough to redeem the mess made in the first hour of the film.
Prisoners of the Ghostland comes to AMC+ and Shudder November 19
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