At this point speculation over how Nic Cage chooses his projects must be at a maximum. Does he except any script as long as it comes in on a day ending with a Y? Does he toss the pitches in the air and shoot arrows at them picking the project he pierces? Is it deftly dumb and random or craftily clever and calculated?
Whatever the method the fact is Nicolas Cage is fast becoming the most interesting actor out there. Jumping genre’s from the Sci-Fi mystery Color Out of Space to dark horror comedy Mom and Dad, vaulting film styles from conventional commercial thriller’s like Primal to the arthouse magnificence of Mandy he is unafraid to test himself and cinema itself it seems with his relentless output.
In 2021 alone he has made the superb low budget wonder that was Willy’s Wonderland a must see horror where he doesn’t speak a single line, Pig a movie about a truffle hunter searching for his beloved lost pet and Prisoners of the Ghostland and if that’s not an excitingly eclectic output then I don’t know what is.
Prisoners of the Ghostland pairs Cage with the perfect director in the shape of Japanese auteur Sion Sono who has directed over 50 feature films including Tag and Suicide Club. Subversive and uncompromising his movies balance ultra-violence with beautiful imagery creating a unique and unsettling experience. In fact 2014’s Tokyo Tribe, a battle rap Manga adaption musical seems like exactly the sort of project Nic could have starred in.
Plunging you straight into its insanity the story of Prisoners of the Ghostland sees Hotel Artemis and Star Trek Beyond’s Sofia Boutella as Bernice a slave of the insidious Southern gentleman known as The Governor perfectly played by The Devil’s Rejects and Night of the Living Dead’s Bill Moseley.
When Bernice escapes his cloying clutches into the unknown wilderness The Governor offers an unnamed captured criminal played by Cage the job of bringing his adopted granddaughter back. Donning a snazzy leather jump suit the anti-hero is unaware that his garments contain explosive charges on his neck, arms and testicles, which are safety precautions not only to ensure the wicked old man gets his girl back but also that she remains untouched.
Enraged but with no other options the nameless man sets out into the Ghostland to find Bernice and take her back to her prison not realising that his journey will lead him to encounter a rundown colony of paranoid survivors, a prophecy to restart time and supernatural atomic infused convicts as well as facing the spectres of his past.
Visually stunning from start to finish Sono creates a complete and coherent unhinged environment combing grounded reality and surreal set ups that somehow all work as one weird warped world. From the East meets West setting of Samurai Town populated by gun totting cowboys, repressed Ronin and giggling geisha girls to the Mad Max wastelands of the Rat Man and his Rat Clan to the Terry Gilliam style towering clock that the townsfolk attempt to hold back this is a super stylised film drenched in dreamlike imagery.
Seeing as the disjointed story takes a while to sort out in your mind Prisoners of the Ghostland is definitely a movie that demands repeat viewing if you can get on-board that is. There is so much to take in at times you feel overloaded with each shot a rich and textured tableau full of strange sights and sounds and perhaps it is best to simply let the movie wash over you like a fever dream rather than fight against it to find meaning.
Written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai who were inspired by a myriad of movies from their youth including 80’s action and horror the script shifts from intensity to absurdity sometimes within the same scene. From The Governor’s overblown ramblings to the Greek Chorus that accompany the prophetic soothsayer to some sensational shouting from Nic Cage of course, people speak in riddles and clichés but it all seamlessly fits the eerie environment.
Themes of the destructive force of nuclear power both under the shadow of Hiroshima and Fukushima are obvious as is the effect of American culture on traditional Japanese heritage but Sono also seems at times to be deconstructing cinema itself.
The casting of Cage as a character with no name except being called Hero by other people is sublime as we get not only the weight of his many roles as a stereotypical Hollywood action star but the deranged unpredictability he brings to every part and that this dystopian world demands.
In fact you could see Cage’s character as almost an amalgamation of some of his most famous roles. He is a criminal seeking redemption as in Face/Off, Con Air and a host of other films sent on a fool’s errand after a missing girl as in The Wicker Man dressed in a leather jump suit which evokes Ghost Rider and coupled with the faux karate he does reminds us of not only Honeymoon in Vegas but also his real life marriage to Lisa Marie Presley.
A high-octane, post-apocalyptic puzzle Prisoners of the Ghostland is flawed but its epic scale and visual scope do a lot to elevate it. It’s safe to say that not all Nic Cage’s projects are this imaginative but they are always this interesting and this engaging and that’s why I for one will always watch anything he does because the man knows how to take a risk.