Sundance Review: PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND

I was already anticipating great things from PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND, directed by Sion Sono, before I read that RLJE had acquired this film ahead of its premiere at Sundance. Sion Sono has made over 50 films and GHOSTLAND is his debut English-language feature, and Nic Cage is…well. Nic Cage. Knowing a major distributor had already signed on with this project, I expected GHOSTLAND to be, I don’t know, mind blowing? Revelatory?

Well. It was pretty good.

Here’s the story:

PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND follows an unnamed bank robber (Nic Cage) who is liberated from prison by a patriarch named The Governor (Bill Moseley) in exchange for the robber’s promise to find and rescue The Governor’s adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella). The robber is strapped into a luscious leather number with bombs attached to all the gooey parts in case he gets up to any funny business, and told if he doesn’t come back with Bernice in 5 days the whole thing will blow. Eventually he finds Bernice in “the ghostland,” an abandoned stretch of highway that was damaged in a nuclear car accident and is now inhabited by a variety of scaries: a priestess with a gaggle of followers who Greek-Chorus all her lines, a guy who covers depressed people with mannequin parts and makes them stand really still until they’ve lost the will to live (and also their voices), and corporeal “ghosts” with atomically-melted faces who beat people up when they try to leave the ghostland. Eventually, they leave anyway, and fight back against the Governor’s tyrannical rule in a massive samurai battle. But not before Nic Cage has lost a testicle and an arm to the exploding BDSM outfit.

GHOSTLAND is an American-style western set in a post-apocalyptic Japan-esque place. It’s sort of like a mashup of Mad Max, The Transporter, and the bordello episode of FIREFLY (2002), plus Samurai and hallucinogenic drugs. Which is basically what I expect from any Nic Cage horror film these days, but I have to say I wasn’t as into it as I wanted to be.

For one thing, the story is convoluted enough that I pretty much lost the thread of all the atomic sub-plots. It’s easy enough to follow the Nic Cage A-Plot (find girl, transport girl, keep testicles) but that storyline isn’t actually very compelling. Cage delivers his usual nutty (lol) acting, but it doesn’t have the depth of feeling that really takes Cage performances, at their best, to the next level. The character development just isn’t there. Time and again, GHOSTLAND prioritizes flashy aesthetic over character development or narrative sense.

For another thing, it’s exhaustingly misogynistic. Bernice loses her voice out of a general un-explained sadness while in the ghostland, and spends an uncomfortable amount of time being hauled around like luggage. She does eventually get a little fighting in toward the end, but for the most part she’s a damsel. All the other female characters are even more perturbingly passive; most of them appear to be prostitutes or sexual prisoners, except Bernice’s cousin who spends most of the movie talking through a doll (and then, right at the end, shoots a lot of people with a machine gun. which is fun! But a little confusing).

Ultimately, GHOSTLAND is funny, unhinged, and a lot of fun to look at. Based on its content it could stand to be about 30 minutes shorter, but despite its flaws it was overall enjoyable. If you want a truly masterful Nic Cage performance, you can skip it and go watch MANDY (2019) on Shudder. But if you’re specifically looking for an action/horror/apocalypse/samurai/spoof, then you can still catch PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND at Sundance all day tomorrow, Feb. 2.

Published by Brandy N. Carie

Playwright. Director. Producer. Dramaturg. I like coffee and Whisky and dogs and talking in person.

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