The Stranger's sister publication, the Portland Mercury, originally posted this review on their blog, Blogtown. Follow them for Portland updates...if you're into that sorta thing.
A film defined by a prevailing wisdom of “sure, why not do that,” Prisoners of the Ghostland is a chaotic caper with Nicolas Cage as a bank robbing criminal who is given a simple choice: rescue Sofia Boutella’s Bernice post-haste or get blown up by a series of explosives that are strapped to your body.
To get an idea of what type of film this is, Cage is simply known as “Hero,” and the specific locations of the bombs include ones right next to testicles. How did he find himself in this situation? It all started after a brightly colored heist ended in tragedy, caused by Hero’s partner Psycho who goes...well...psycho. The fallout leaves Hero confined in the treacherous Samurai Town. What is good for us is that the actor isn’t similarly confined for long, and will soon get to go all-out as only Cage can do. The overbearing leader of the town, a white clad man with red gloves known only as The Governor (Bill Moseley), will send Hero on this mission under the threat of death if he doesn’t complete it perfectly.
This development ensures the film leans into Cage’s larger-than-life persona that’s perfectly suited for this type of story.
Prisoners of the Ghostland feels like a mashup of a classic Western story, with imagery recalling the Mad Max films, elements that draw from any number of samurai films, and a dash of Hobo with a Shotgun. Oh, and there are some zombies that also roam the world in a teleporting bus. It is as surreal as it sounds, complemented by more of the committed acting from Cage that audiences can only hope for. Above all else, and perhaps the key aspect, is that it also is very much director Sion Sono’s film. He is able to keep a handle on all the disparate elements that are flying around to ensure it all somehow holds together, even as the world it takes place in is falling apart.
That world is left largely mysterious as Hero is sent out into a desertous wasteland without much knowledge about what he is getting into. He doesn’t make it very far—it comically feels like he is no more than a few miles from where he started—before running into trouble. There seems to be some sort of curse that has fallen upon the land and only Hero will be able to save the people from it. To do so, he’ll have to come to terms with the guilt of his past and move forward.
If this sounds very serious, that is because the film dips its toe into some of this heavier stuff without fully jumping in. It is to the film’s benefit that the story doesn’t ham it up just for the sake of doing so because of the reputation of its lead actor. Instead, the film refreshingly weaves Cage into the story as the deeply flawed but eventual hero that will have to find a way to live up to his name. He is channeling the bravado of a character akin to Bruce Campbell’s Ash from the Evil Dead series, even shouting "hi-fucking-ya" at one moment with complete sincerity, even as it illicits a chuckle. Each moment Cage really goes all out is a standout, marking the film as one of a growing few that actually knows what to do with him and doesn’t just try to coast on his reputation alone. He completely blends in.
It made me appreciate how Cage can go from being in a much more serious and somber performance like another film he was in this year, the sublime Portland-set Pig, to this. Is this most recent work as well-rounded and resonant as that prior film? No, most certainly not. The film struggles to know what to do with Boutella’s character and similarly leaves many of the other side characters, including the fascinating Ratman, without much of a role.
The film often just throws so much at the wall, such as creepy mannequins and a giant clock a group of groaning men must stop from moving, that it never gets the chance to really build out any individual element. Still, those details are quite striking when we do see them. Often eccentricity takes the place of depth, leaving a somewhat shallow and low-stakes air to the film. There are minimal locations and a continual question about whether the group is actually going to go anywhere.
With that being said, there certainly never is a moment of boredom or anything that drags. Each new element or progression, if you are on board with the film overall, keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. With every sudden development, the aforementioned “sure, why not do that” philosophy ensures the film is always doing something engaging to break up any risk of repetition. There are some moments that fill in via flashback, a lot of which could have already been inferred, though it doesn’t ever detract away from the momentum the film is building to. The only issue is that such momentum needs to go somewhere and, when it doesn’t for quite a long time, the film can teeter on being meanderingly aimless.
That means by the time you reach the conclusion, which is where all hell really breaks loose, the film has begun to cry out for something more substantial to latch onto. Thankfully, the ending couldn’t have come a moment sooner as the film fully embraces its combined genre elements by giving Cage and the gang plenty to work with. What follows is a gloriously over-the-top and confident conclusion that makes all the past struggle to find its way forgivable.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is a bit more fleeting of a film overall than it should or could have been, though it is still one that is worth praising because of how wholly it embraces its unique vision.
You can see Prisoners of the Ghostland in theaters and on VOD.