This is no “Pig”! Admittedly that’s a strange way to start a review. But those of you who have had the pleasure of watching Nicolas Cage’s poignant and remarkably restrained performance in the movie “Pig” from earlier this year will get the reference (if you haven’t seen it, it’s absolutely worth seeking out). Cage’s latest film “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is as far removed from “Pig” as a movie could possibly be.
Figuring out Cage’s recipe for choosing roles is as big of a movie mystery as the contents of the briefcase in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” or Bill Murray’s whisper to Scarlett Johansson at the end of “Lost in Translation”. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to his process. It’s tempting to write it off as simply an actor cashing checks and maybe there’s some truth to that. But some of his choices have been intriguing and dare I say audacious. Perhaps there actually is an artistic method to his madness. Maybe he’s up to more than just amassing the biggest and wackiest filmography ever put on a Wikipedia page.
Then you have renegade filmmaker, author and poet Sion Sono. A notorious provocateur, Sono is well known throughout his native Japan but not always fully embraced. His movies are often described as idiosyncratic and subversive by fans but also perverse and divisive by detractors. Due to his transgressive style, some find his work too controversial. Others toss it into the category of ero guro nansensu, a self-explanatory Japanese art movement derived from the English words “erotic, grotesque, and nonsense”.
When two enigmatic swirls of creative energy like Cage and Sono come together you get something like “Prisoners of the Ghostland”, a logic-defying genre mashup that’s nuttier than a can of Planters. This is Sono’s first English-language film and it sees him working in weirdness the way fine artists work in oils or marble. Screenwriters Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai give the director the narrative space to run amuck and Cage takes it on with a wild-eyed gusto that ensures things are never boring. Baffling at times and utterly absurd, sure. But never boring.
Cage plays a hard-nosed criminal who eventually takes the name Hero. We first meet Hero as he’s rotting in jail after a bank robbery with his fittingly named partner Psycho (Nick Cassavetes) goes terribly (and violently) bad. In a terrific bit of wacky tone-setting, a grime-covered Cage wearing nothing but shackles and a cheeky fundoshi (picture that image while keeping a straight face) is summoned by the Governor of Samurai Town (played by Bill Moseley sounding identical to Captain Obvious from those Hotels.com commercials). The Governor has a job and if Hero pulls it off he’ll be set free.
Turns out the Governor’s “granddaughter” Bernice (Sofia Boutella) ran away and has vanished in the post-apocalyptic wilds known as the Ghostland. Hero’s job sounds pretty straightforward – head into the Ghostland, find Bernice, bring her back. But there’s nothing straightforward about this movie, and Sono’s unbridled indulgent spirit ensures that nothing is plain sailing.
To make things even more absurd (because why not?), Hero is forced to wear black leather coveralls rigged with neuro-sensors and ‘strategically’ placed explosives. If he returns the Governor’s granddaughter “unsoiled” in the allotted five days he gets to go free. If he gets out of line or doesn’t return in time…well, KABOOM. So off he goes on what turns out to be a fever dream redemption tale.
From there the story ventures into the bizarre and incomprehensible, with Sono mostly focused on building gaudy and extravagant locations and littering them with a wild assortment of extras rather than telling a cohesive story. His sets are a peculiar melding of cultures, time periods and movie genres that manage to be both fascinating and excessive. And he fills them with trenchcoat wearing cowboys, samurai, zombies (I think that’s what they were) and radioactive mutants among other groups. They’re basically there to add to the showiness.
Meanwhile the central plot borrows from “Mad Max”, “Escape from New York” and even “Army of Darkness”. But that eclectic blend of inspiration can’t make up for the movies clear lack of depth. We do get a murky rebuke of nuclear war as well as allusions to class disparity and the tyrannical nature of time. But those handful of themes and the story itself take a back seat to the zany pomp and showmanship. Even Cage ends up on the short end of the stick. Sure, he gets a few wacky opportunities to scream “BANZAI” and utter hilariously absurd lines “I AM RADIOACTIVE”. But far too often he’s stuck watching Sono’s gonzo theatrics.
This meeting between these two cinematic wildmen ends up being equally fascinating and frustrating. It’s just a shame that Sono’s story always feels secondary and his lust for the surreal is so overpowering. Still it’s easy to be pulled in by the wackiness and there’s certainly fun to be had. And you have to love Cage’s continued willingness to buck convention. And to think, he’s delivered both his wildest and his most restrained movie all in the same year. Further proof that you never know what to expect from him. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is out September 17th in theaters and on VOD.