I love how much the internet has embraced Nicolas Cage over the past few years. He has always made choices in whatever film he’s in, but a lot of the movies he’s made since around 2010 have been little seen low-budget nothings. But since 2018’s Mandy, Cage has transformed into one of the main faces in effed-up, gonzo indie horror. Last year’s Color Out of Space gave him another notch in that belt, and this year, the Sundance selection Prisoners of the Ghostland seemed poised to give him yet another. And while it is very weird, and he is very Nicolas Cage in it, it fails to live up to much of its own potential.
This was one of the movies I was most excited to see at Sundance 2021. The first English language film from Japanese pulp director Sion Sono, Prisoners of the Ghostland is perfect on paper. A mix of Western, samurai epic, post-apocalyptic thriller, and dark horror movie; all of that sounds great, and Nic Cage is the perfect choice to star. The problem is, nothing much actually happens. Or at least, the narrative doesn’t make it explicit what is or is not happening. And for an apparent action movie, there’s not all that much action. (With one major exception, which I’ll get to.)
The story, as such, is very Escape from New York. Cage’s Hero (the closest he gets to a name) is a bank robber who, along with his violent cohort Psycho (Nick Cassavetes), botched a robbery so badly that it left multiple innocents dead. Years later, Hero is in a jail cell in Samurai Town—which looks like a fake Wild West theme part with Japanese stuff overlaid. The guy who runs Samurai Town is the Governor (Bill Moseley), the white-clad cowboy with a harem of “granddaughters,” (gross). One of his granddaughters, Bernice (Sofia Boutella), has run off into the Ghostland, and the Governor puts Hero into a bomb-rigged leather jumpsuit and tells him he has three days to find Bernice and another two to bring her back. Or boom.
The set-up is great. Standard action-sci-fi stuff. But once Hero goes off into the Ghostland—which I guess is a stretch of desert where actual ghosts block the way?!?—things go off the rails in a not-good way. There is a Mad Max-esque group of ragtag survivors way out in the Ghostland; they live around the remnants of a giant clock which they try to stop from ticking and scrounge for resources. But they can’t go back to Samurai Town because, again, the ghosts.
We get the basic notion: Hero has to find Bernice and bring her back or boom. But there’s so little actual plot or action that takes place once he reaches the Ghostland that it feels completely empty. The Ghostlanders call him Hero; why? He doesn’t seem like the best guy and doesn’t do anything to make them call him that. Bernice is afraid of him, until suddenly she isn’t. He apparently has some kind of vision quest but we don’t really know what that is. The long and short of it is the Governor is a bad dude and so they want to go back to Samurai Town to free Bernice’s fellow granddaughters once the old man turns off Hero’s bomb suit.
It looks cool, the concept is neat; there just isn’t much there there. Cage does get to have some choice Cage moments; he says the lines “Hi-f***in’-ya” and later angrily shouts the word “Testicle!” for a reason I won’t explain. But he’s really a blank slate, even for him.
The one bright spot in the movie is the appearance of cult Japanese action star Tak Sakaguchi. That’s right; Crazy Samurai Musashi himself. He plays Yasujiro, the Governor’s samurai enforcer. We find out in an all-too-brief scene that Yasujiro is only working for the Governor to save his sister, whom the Governor has enslaved. He has no lines but he has three absolutely fantastic one-on-a-bunch swordplay sequences and even squares off against Cage by the end. Easily the most interesting character, and the only one who gets to do action on a regular basis.
It’s not that there’s zero fun or enjoyment in Prisoners of the Ghostland. There are some cool moments, and Cage is Cage no matter what. Moseley gets to do his Southern-fried villain routine and there are some funny and weird side characters. But truly, this should have been so much better and I can’t fully put my finger on why it isn’t. Like the Ghostland itself, there’s just a lot more nothing than I expected.
A weak 3/5
For more of our reviews from Sundance 2021, CLICK HERE.
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!