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Is "Prisoners of the Ghostland" Too Much, Or Not Enough?
Grenades to the crotch are fun and all, but...
One of my proudest moments in movie recommendation was when I advised a good friend to watch AntiPorno on Mubi. It was his introduction to director Sion Sono I believe, and the subsequent chats we had proved how much of an impression it had made on him - we still talk about it, a few years later. Sono is one of the more important filmmakers the world has at the moment, absolutely, with movies moving so fluidly from the intensely weird to the most grounded of character. Never strange, even when dealing around it.
It’s no wonder that he and someone like Nicolas Cage would cross paths someday. Why not now, of all times?
Prisoners of the Ghostland goes whole commando with Cage, and not just because he’s nude under a leather outfit that’s outfitted with specially located explosives. The poster for the film even says so, with a direct quote from Cage, hyping the movie up to the Moon and beyond. If Cage ranks it like this, then it must be good, huh? While there’s clarity in the main gimmick and the world that all of the performers breathe in, there’s also danger in the general conceit, and some muddling that is too challenging for its own good. Or at least, for mine - though that blame falls on me.
Here, Sono plays with the cinematic mythology and meme-making that audiences have developed for Nicolas Cage over the decades. He’s the “irreverent” actor, so people have high expectations now for gifs and oddities from him. But, he’s no Zoo animal, and there’s no right to making a Lemur look cute for your selfie (though they are pretty cute all the time). Thankfully, Sono and Cage are dialed in with one another, crafting a performance and a reaction that rival Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans in how legend and unhinged collide and cooperate. “I’m radioactive” Cage proclaims in a moment of revelation, standing in front of a giant clock at the base of an exploded nuclear tower. For certain, he’s untouchable by way of being vulnerable and sensitive to the feel, affecting all around him. Radioactive.
Prisoners of the Ghostland itself, however, could use less radiation. A little less, I mean. It’s camp, yes, and solidly down to Earth in many fits and bursts (subplots about honor, family, and betrayal ring all too true given the few minutes of time allotted), but also awfully reliant on, you guessed it, Cage. He’s not just a centerpiece, but the entire show. There are set pieces of big beauty placed in designs of such wonderful intricacy - where everything must’ve been decided upon oh so carefully - but the focus is always on how one actor responds to it all. The story of a mission against time to reclaim an escaped woman for a boundless but impotent gangster, in the midst of a timeless land of anachronisms and hopelessness, plays second fiddle to how one cult responds to one man’s responses to another man’s interpretation of one man’s career and life. Sure, there’s depth to this world, and sure there’s plenty for everyone to chew on after (no scene-chewing, by the way - it all feels “appropriate” for this flick), but it all adds up to the number one. Indeed, Prisoners of the Ghostland is a romp, a full-tilt example of all cinema has to offer, of course. But, like the song, this is the loneliest film that Sono will ever do. Maybe.
Why riff so much on Nicolas Cage? Why the fascination and the exploration? Why is he number one?
Nicolas Cage is one of the more important actors we have in the world right now. That’s why. And letting him rock out while a director rocks in, is worth a group of tickets. Prisoners of the Ghostland is an AntiBlockbuster, deconstructing and reconstructing through time and frame, with both the power of this medium and the sins left to be documented by this medium.
If Nic Cage is radioactive, then Sion Sono is a toxic avenger. And all will be right, if the two meet more often. Give or take. 3/5