Sundance 2021: Prisoners of the Ghostland, by David Bax
To answer the question on the minds of all the irony hounds, who speak in memes and love nothing, yes, Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland is that kind of Nicolas Cage movie. With died black hair, he wields an array of ridiculous weapons and screams his head off; there are plenty of YouTube-ready clips here. But it’s also all in service of an exuberant celebration of movie magic. This is a film that is hammy, violent and ludicrously bejeweled in art direction that knows no bounds. Sono seems to be making that argument that, if given a chance to make a movie, why not squeeze everything out of that chance that you can?
In a little whistle-stop called Samurai Town, Cage’s outlaw and a partner named Psycho (Nick Cassavetes) rob the local bank. The heist goes violently wrong and our protagonist finds himself rotting away in jail. Until, that is, Bernice (Sofia Boutella), a young woman held captive by The Governor (Bill Moseley), escapes into the nearby nuclear waste of “the ghostland.” Bringing the movie into the genre of “prisoner gets released to go on a suicide mission” movies, The Governor gives our hero a matter of days to go into the ghostland and bring Bernice back. If he succeeds, he’ll be freed. If he fails, he’ll be killed.
You may have noticed (I haven’t exactly been inconspicuous about it) that Cage plays a man with no name. That Leone homage is just one aspect of Ghostland‘s overall Western pastiche. Despite the modern technology and automobiles, the storefronts in Samurai Town have saloon doors and most male residents wear chaps and boots. They’re playing at being characters in a Western or, at times (like when Cage dons a football helmet to prepare for battle), they’re playing at Americanness in general.
Ghostland may have the visual signifiers of a Western but that’s not the same as looking like one. Sono stimulates our eyes with one candy-colored tableau after another, mixing the brilliance of a child’s crayon set with sudden bursts of violence. In no way is this special blend more immediately recognizable than in the slow motion shots of an exploding gumball machine to which Sono returns again and again throughout the movie. Unlike similarly stylized films, such as Hollywood superhero fare, though, Ghostland never leaves the realm of the filmic. As kaleidoscopic as it is, Sôhei Tanikawa’s cinematography is somewhat old-fashioned in not feeling overly color-timed or tweaked in digital intermediate. In large part, he is actually, like John Alton said, painting with light.
But as much as Sono appears to enjoy relishing in signifiers of the western world’s recent history, he also seems to ultimately decide that there’s harm in attempting to remain in the past. With all respect to Cage’s briefly quoting Hamlet, the most poetic moment in Prisoners of the Ghostland comes when a slow motion sword fight is soundtracked by Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” a song about knowing that life has to move forward, no matter how painful it may be.