REVIEW: Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021)

dir. Sion Sono

Celebrated director Sion Sono’s latest offering has been described by star Nicolas Cage as “the wildest movie” he’s ever made: quite the statement from an actor whose back catalogue includes Vampire’s Kiss and Mandy. Regardless of whether that claim rings true there is no doubt that this actor/director partnership is an exciting prospect.

Plot-wise, Prisoners surprisingly flirts with convention: set in a dystopian wasteland, settlement leader The Governor (Bill Mosely) hires ruthless bank robber named Hero (Cage) to find his adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sophia Boutella). Hero must navigate the treacherous Badlands, survive murderous tribes and deliver Bernice to The Governor, all before his leather suit self-destructs.

Cage has often been described as an actor of range, and his last two releases have demonstrated this perfectly, Pig and Prisoners perfectly showcasing his duality as an actor. In Pig he presents a stripped back performance that oozes sincerity: but that is not this Cage. Director Sono has removed the shackles, unlocked the cell and waved a red flag allowing for one of the actor’s more memorable turns. Hero is a man on the edge, a criminal forced to confront sins from a previous life, and Cage plays it with a chaotic, simmering physicality that is punctuated by playful exuberance. And it’s a joy to watch.

Still Cage isn’t left to the do the heavy lifting solo. Mosely chews every bit of scenery as the deranged and villainous Governor, his performance torn from the book of Dennis Hopper, brimming with grinning contempt. Perhaps the most intriguing character however is Tak Sakaguchi’s Yasujiro, who is magnetic as the noble samurai caught between his master and his morals. The only disappointment is the meagre amount of material Sophia Boutella has to work with, settling instead for solemn glances and a brief interlude of violence towards the climax.

Sono has been described as one of the most distinctive directors of this century, and watching Prisoners it is easy to see why: it’s a visual feast that treats the audience to a symphony of striking colour, offset against a grimy sepia world. This universe feels completely alive, an apocalyptic wasteland infested with junk yard scavengers, pious preachers and terrifying mannequin people. It’s a film made for the big screen, every millimetre of the frame crammed with images from Sono’s lawless psyche.

The settlement Samurai Town itself is an explosion of contradictory cultural references that, at first glance, appear logical, but on closer inspection are strewn with irrationality. Traditional feudal Japanese architecture adorned with neon signage reading “Salon” or “Pawn Shop” – and populated by geisha, samurai and cowboys – create a heady mix that perhaps points towards Sono’s belief that the West has bled into Japanese culture so much that one is indistinguishable from the other. With this fusion of everything from Mad Max to Takeshi Kitano’s Gangster epics it becomes clear that Sono has created a genre-mashing blend like no other. 

Whilst some might scoff at this style nobody can deny its compelling surrealism. A director that doesn’t recognise boundaries, paired with a man who strives to break every acting rule in the book, makes Prisoners of the Ghostland an experimental experience not to be missed.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Alex Kronenburg

Prisoners of the Ghostland is out in cinemas and on digital on 17th September.

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