Prisoners of the Ghostland is the type of film that had a passionate audience frothing at the mouth for its release well before a single frame was ever released to the public. The hotly anticipated English-language debut of Sion Sono, maverick genre auteur and the prolific perennial cult figure behind such strange cinema as the four-hour Love Exposure (2008) and the art-porn Antiporno (2016), sees him partnering up with cinematic meme Nicolas Cage in what was guaranteed to be a recipe for the perfect “midnight movie.”
In many ways, these sky-high expectations were delivered upon. Prisoners of the Ghostland is an absurd, Acid Western about a post-apocalyptic race against time, spirits, samurais and testicular bombs that confounds as it bewilders, an unbridled and knowing jaunt through genre tropes that feels deliberately designed for cult evaluation. Of course, knowing the manner in which the veteran director resists labels, his English-language debut is not so simply pinned down.
Set in a vividly realized Spaghetti Western wasteland that feels (deliberately) caught between Eastern and Western influences, the film stars Cage as the nameless “Hero,” a violent bank robber imprisoned in Samurai Town for a botched job that resulted in a massacre of bystanders. Haunted by his mistake and rotting in a cell, he is released by the enigmatic Governor (Bill Mosely) with a proposition: venture into the supernatural realm of the Ghostland and retrieve his “granddaughter,” Bernice (Sofia Boutella), to be set free. To ensure the cooperation of the erratic Hero (the character, not the literary concept) , the Governor has him locked into a leather suit stitched with timed explosives and gives Hero five days to cross into the mysterious world of ghosts and break the curse while also preventing any of its many unfortunate souls imprisoned there from leaving.
These plot points set Prisoners up to be a wild and raucous race against time, but the film (based on a script by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai) does not necessarily deliver on that front. While there is plenty of pulse-pounding action and blood splatter to be found in the visceral showdown that caps the film off, Sono’s genre mishmash has its sights set on the more cerebral aspects of the hero’s journey.
Rife with bizarre and captivating imagery as Hero meanders and surls his way through the breathtaking sets of the Ghostland, the film absorbs you into dreamlike digressions, seemingly inspired by Acid Western pioneer Alejandro Jordorowsky. Prisoners always has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek with each surreal touch (including the dependable Cage erupting into profanity at seemingly any strange provocation), but the film nevertheless may leave some who expected, for one reason or another, an unrestrained gorefest disappointed.
Of course loyal followers of Sono’s career have long been trained to never assume anything about one of his films, and, if anything, the playful treatment of genre and expectations on display in Prisoners feels entirely deliberate. As Hero further probes the mysteries of the Ghostland in haphazard and brutish manners, the film engages in extensive exposition and inflated thematic detours that feel intentionally antithetical to the farcical tone under which it predominantly operates.
The film is highly aware of its own absurdity and embraces it, be it through its breathtaking set design, its manic cast or the perplexing world of government officials running transnational samurai towns and mythical Mad Max-esque wastelands, it builds around what it is a very straightforward action film premise. Much of the enjoyment of Prisoners comes from parsing its intentions, influences and inspirations, rather than hoping to have your assumption of this being another wild Nicolas Cage film confirmed.
Prisoners has its moments of outlandish action, but for many viewers, they may be too few and far between. Sono’s latest very well could become victim to its own hype, and its intoxicating strangeness may be lost on many who expected a runaway WTF-type experience.
Where Prisoners truly shines is in its brooding cinematography, its evocative set design, the unexpected depths to its worldbuilding and its repeated abilities to defy your expectations. The blood splatter and meme-worthy Cage performance are just cherries on top of an audaciously offbeat sundae.