Dir: Sion Sono. Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley. 103 mins.
The poster for Prisoners of the Ghostland bears a few ominous words from its star, Nicolas Cage: this is “the wildest movie I’ve ever made”. That’s quite the statement. I’m not sure how I’d even begin to judge it. But there is something fateful, and almost beautiful, about this collaboration between Hollywood’s own master of the unhinged and a director like Sion Sono. A typical film by the Japanese auteur will play like a no-holds barred descent into exquisite madness – whether it’s Love Exposure, his four-hour opus about the intersection between religion and the art of the panty shot, or his neon-drenched dystopian hip-hop musical Tokyo Tribe.
Prisoners of the Ghostland, a dystopian fantasy about an impossible rescue mission, is actually more sedate than many of Sono’s past efforts. Don’t worry, though – it’s still absolutely deranged, delivering an unholy, perverse mash-up between Mad Max and the twinned genres of the western and the samurai film. Somewhere, in the middle of it all, there’s a thesis on Japan’s uneasy cultural relationship with the US, driven by capitalist interests and the lingering trauma of nuclear destruction. There’s no easing into Sono’s films – this one opens with the sound of Cage’s guttural roar, as he and his criminal partner, Psycho (Nick Cassavetes), hold up a minimalist-style bank where everyone’s inexplicably dressed like an extra from a Jacques Demy musical. And, just when it seems like the life of a small, innocent child may be in danger, Sono interrupts the chaos and catches up with Cage’s character, named only Hero, several years later.
We’re in a place called Samurai Town, where traditional Japanese architecture is embellished with a little High Noon flair. Hero is dragged out of his jail cell and brought before the Governor (Bill Moseley), who offers him a deal: he’ll get his freedom if, in return, he can bring back his supposed granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who’s trapped in a living purgatory known only as the Ghostland. That involves changing out of his tiny loincloth and into a leather suit strapped with bombs – if he harms her, his arms blow up. If he feels any desire toward her, his testicles blow up. As he strips in front of the gathered crowd, a few of the women gasp and giggle appreciatively. Another of them simply rolls her eyes and mutters: “I’ve seen better.”
This is Sono’s style to a tee – both operatic and self-consciously obscene. He’s the rare filmmaker that will actually follow through with the threat of testicle explosion. And Cage, of course, seems right at home. In brief, he’s essentially delivering the same performance as he did in the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man. There’s even an eerily similar sequence in which he tries to fend off the ragged, dystopian-styled Ghostland locals with some karate moves and a “hi–f***ing-yah!”, before thrusting a photograph of Bernice into their faces and demanding: “have any of you wwwwhack jobs seen her?” But that erratic of a performance feels almost natural here, and his presence is nicely balanced out by Boutella’s own strait-laced, action hero bravado. Watching the way she moves and fights makes it frustrating that she’s not often spoken about in the same breath as her Atomic Blonde co-star Charlize Theron.
Prisoners of the Ghostland, like so much of Sono’s work, rejects authority in favour of a strange kinship between weirdos, outcasts, and degenerates. The Governor’s world is a self-described “Animal Farm” – and when he asks for “America”, what arrives is a bag of dollar bills that he can fling at the women he feels entitled to own. But all this power must come at someone else’s expense, and Ghostland becomes the shadow of history that can’t be so easily shaken off, as its people pull helplessly on the arm of a giant clock to try and stop it from ticking. If time is allowed to move forward, it moves only towards their total destruction. Sono may indulge in madness, but it’s not madness without reason.