Sion Sono’s Prisoners Of The Ghostland

Nicolas Cage has a big laundry chute from his agent’s office that goes right to his mancave at home, wherein various wild, weird and wonderful scripts are just hurled through, whereupon he can evaluate them from the safety and comfort of his pad, and agree to do absolutely amazing, one of a kind cinematic celebrations of unconventional spirit and innovation like Sion Sono’s Prisoners Of The Ghostland, a psychedelic arthouse dream-poem that I promise you is unlike anything you’ve ever seen Cage do and sits atop the mighty crest of other such curios in his recent career like Mandy, Willy’s Wonderland and Colour Out Of Space. This is my baptism by fire, so to speak, in Sono’s work, a Japanese mad scientist of celluloid whose work here is as wantonly jagged and subconsciously nebulous as it is specifically calibrated and lovingly detailed as he tells the story of one lone hero recruited by a sinister southern dandy called The Governor (Bill Moseley, curdled to hammy perfection) to rescue his ‘granddaughter’ Bernice (Sofia Boutella) from a vague netherworld called the Ghostland where she is being held by forces unknown. Cage is outfitted with an explosive device suit that looks like a hand-me-down from Snake Plissken, complete with little bombs to detonate each testicle, should he get frisky. I’m not sure why I’m describing plot here because there really isn’t one, but there also kind of is. Ever have one of those dreams where you’re in a narrative that should make sense from an earthly, rational perspective yet everything is somehow… off, somehow topsy-turvy and abstractly bizarre? This film literally functions within the logic of a dream, and you have to shift gears of perception before you’re in tune with it, there’s just no sense to be made of it beyond the intuitive on a subconscious level. Cage’s character here is nameless beyond the archetypal moniker of ‘Hero’ but I suppose if we wish to put a name to this stranger we can refer to the actor’s own comments, as he has said this guy is supposed to be a spiritual amalgamation of his work as Sailor Ripley in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart and Castor Troy in John Woo’s Face/Off. How awesome is that? It’s fitting because there’s a reunion of sorts for him and Nick Cassavetes, playing his hulking partner in crime here. The film is much less of a manic action spectacle than the trailers might show; there is action, yes, but mostly there’s just atmosphere, and heaps of it. Cowboy/samurai hybrid goons, giggling geisha girls overflowing with bizarrely effervescent personality, animalistic scavengers who roam the Ghostland, all adorned in breathtaking costumes and inhabiting some of the most arresting, beautifully otherworldly cinematography I’ve ever seen, something like post apocalyptic kabuki with vivid splashes of steampunk and shades of zombie horror peppered in too. Characters behave free from inhibition and careen wildly about at the mercy of their own impulses and those of Sono’s who is one hell of a visual artist. There are random pauses in the narrative as the cast breaks out into song for no apparent reason other than they feel like it, including a haunting group rendition of Burl Ives’ ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’ led by Moseley and tons of hectic Greek chorus exposition in blessed unison from background cast. This is cinema distilled straight from REM sleep mode and blasted onto a screen, strikingly unique dream logic storytelling disguised as a latter day Nic Cage gonzo picture, the stuff of beautiful nightmares that will lull you into a hypnotic trance with it’s relentless, all encompassing alien energy. One of the best films of the year.

-Nate Hill

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