A little less than halfway through Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland, Nicolas Cage, swathed and winched within a black leather bodysuit as much The Road Warrior as it is Scorpio Rising, literalizes the overindulgence that’s both vaunted his myth and socked him in the groin for the past 15-or-so-odd years. I’m unsure how long it’s been—we all are, because we remember nothing different, even the absurd notion that he’s an Oscar-winning performer who smoothly moved into action-adventures and then slipped dramatically on a banana peel into financially motivated VOD bacchanalia. All part of the well-known mystique. Where did this begin? Was it with Next and Bangkok Dangerous in 2008, the year of his worst-looking hair, as he ground down his hero persona into bland paste, or do we go back further, to the remake of The Wicker Man and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, both in 2006, to search for the first signs, the initial threads of his undoing? As is the case with many men in his field, time cannot be read on his face. Or in his hairline. Has he always been like this? Will he? Nicolas Cage, our scion of the American spirit on screen—much too game, fearless, ill-advised, hair-dyed—here he displays a new kind of vulnerability, a bloodletting of his most personal bits, so to speak. The moment is gross and seems unimaginably painful. Sono plays it as a punchline.
Such is the prison of Cage discourse. He’s a meme after all; Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans thrives on that captured energy, Cage’s mania steered well-and-dreamily by fellow meme Werner Herzog. But that was more than a decade ago, and since then Nicolas Cage has had plenty of space to toy with his viral nature and plenty of hungry director genius—David Gordon Green, Paul Schrader, Neveldine/Taylor—to feed. He’s been, by turns, stolid (Joe), scummy (Dog Eat Dog), bummy (Left Behind), sleepwalking (Pay the Ghost) and commercially unhinged (Mom and Dad), so much so that with this year’s gently devastating Pig, his presence has become a planetoid, retroactively giving movies like A Score to Settle or Rage or Willy’s Wonderland weight they likely don’t deserve. His hands have gotten so heavy he’s got his own gravity.
Equally prolific, whose grasp at times exceeds his abilities, is director Sion Sono, now more than 35 features deep and maybe as indebted as Cage to the cinematic idea of what his country means to the world. In accompanying press notes, Sono describes Prisoners of the Ghostland: “Using the rather classic, orthodox storytelling of action films, I created the ‘east meets west’ world that doesn’t exist anywhere else.” Which is a nice way of saying how uncomfortably Sono weaponizes the western fetishization of Japanese culture, siphoning the mojo from Cage’s ’90s action career to propel him into further punishment. If the past decade-plus of the actor’s career has sometimes seemed like he’s reaping what he sowed, whatever it was exactly he sowed, then Sono wields Cage like a writhing, culpable avatar for every genre the film inhales. Cage, without volume control and with no obligation to act like a human being, submits teeth bared. Blow his shit up, man.
In the middle of the nowhere of Prisoners of the Ghostland is Samurai Town, a typical old west locale that’s little more than an extravagant main street festooned with an alchemy of genre tropes. Geishas beckon and pose behind glass and elaborate masks as samurai and cowboys and samurai cowboys drool and drink and fight and fill the hybrid reality with cinematic shorthand. Hero (Cage), imprisoned for a bank heist years before that still haunts him, receives an ultimatum and a quest from local creepy crime boss the Governor (Bill Mosely) in exchange for his freedom. Shackled with explosives around his neck, wrists, thighs, and balls, the leather bodysuit his super-anti-hero get-up, Hero must venture into the apocalyptic Ghostland to retrieve Bernice (Sophia Boutella), the Governor’s beloved “daughter.” Obvious cues culled from Escape from New York, lest Hero bring Bernice back in only few days, he’ll explode. Additionally, should he get horny for Bernice or want to hurt her in any way, a censor in his suit will trigger the bombs, and he’ll explode. Snake Plissken had more options for survival.
Hero ventures into the oneiric Ghostland where his waking hours suppurate with nightmares of the heist. We watch the same scene in flashbacks throughout the film: his towering accomplice Psycho (Nick Cassavetes, shamanic brute) killing a lot of people, including a small child, which apparently wasn’t “part of the deal.” Gumballs—because the lobby of this bank has one overlarge gumball machine—spilling everywhere as Hero and Psycho spill into the street, brawling over the kid Psycho just killed, outlaw moral codes spilling into the gutter, which isn’t a gutter, because there are no gutters in this, the dirty old west. Or is it an alternate future? Finding Bernice proves easy, but getting her out, Hero learns, requires a much more sacrificial transformation.
Though Sono seems to prefer style and genre to fill in for major worldbuilding, Prisoners of the Ghostland doles out surprisingly clear exposition—enough, at least, to understand the stakes and care about who lives or who (grotesquely, we can only hope) dies. Like John Carpenter, Sono can, at his best, match style and substance to craft what feels like a perfect object. At his less powerful, in something like the vulgar musical Tokyo Tribe, his visual conceits can get so dense the film becomes lost in a self-contained loop of allusion and homage. Fortunately, writers Aaron Henry and Reza Sixo Safai anchor Sono’s sensibilities in the machismo and cold war paranoia of ‘80s action behemoths. Ghostland is a movie and place borne from nuclear disaster, populated with the denizens of countless B-movies and the spectres of whiplash Hollywood careers. Costuming and sets swoon under Sohei Tanikawa’s cinematography, alternately splashy and despairing, but this is to be expected when Sono’s working with someone who has been with him long enough to balance the director’s worst impulses.
Same goes for Sono and Cage. In his English language debut, the director’s invested in his silver screen maven—all of this man, his past and present and future—without giving too easily into Cage’s self-destructive self-awareness. It’s debatable whether Cage knows what he’s supposed to be doing at any particular moment throughout Prisoners of the Ghostland, but it doesn’t appear Sono is helping him. Pier Paolo Pasolini reportedly never explained anything about Terence Stamp’s character in Teorama to the actor, preferring to leave the man, already alone as an American on an Italian set, to his isolated instinct. Cage, at least, knows some Japanese? Regardless, he hoots and slinks and mean-mugs his way through Sono’s Ghostland, his instincts as an American actor, alone in his ivory tower head of actorly actorliness, poltergeisting every inch of this lovely and bonkers movie. He has the potential to be breathtaking.
Bill Mosely bears much of the film’s overt sleaze as the Governor, a sort of late-1800s entrepreneur pimp. His whine and the whistle of katanas serenade a hearty fight-filled climax, the folks you want to bite it biting it, Sono handling skirmishes as Kenji Misumi might in one of the Lone Wolf and Cub entries, taking absurd snapshots of the kind of blood-and-guts mayhem a well-handled weapon may cause. He boils action down to its beats. Cage is, of course, totally on board to roll around in an unforgiving leather suit while visions of Vin Diesel whispering, “The movies…” appear in clouds of old west dust. Tak Sakaguchi emerges as Yasujiro, the Governor’s prime henchman, because he belongs here, never losing inertia. (Bill Mosely yelping, “YA-SU-JIR-O!” will stay forever in my heart.) Sofia Boutella too has an ease to how she inhabits a character that’s more a symbol than anything, constantly shifting through archetypes, but why can’t we care deeply about symbols? Nick Cassavetes looks like a dang freak, but then again, the unused part of your brain screams, he bears his stature like a god. And Boutella spins around a murder with aplomb. And Cage wrenches pathos from just the goofiest shit ever. And this is what we go to the movies for anymore. Even if we don’t leave our homes. Even if it sometimes feels like we’re prisoners. Even if toxic waste boils beneath our feet. We want to watch Nicolas Cage attempt to escape from himself, wishing we could do the same.
Director: Sion Sono
Writers: Aaron Henry & Reza Sixo Safai
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes, Bill Mosely, Tak Sakaguchi
Release Date: September 17, 2021
Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter.