Prisoners of the Ghostland (Review)

As a feat of production design, Prisoners of the Ghostland is really impressive. The film has a really enticing aesthetic, think Japanese Mad Max but also Wild West iconography. This unique world of the film is supposed to be a multicultural blend, mirroring this being Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono’s first primarily English language film. We even have Nic Cage in the central role to give it both Hollywood and midnight movie cred. The visuals of the film do lean much more Japanese, though, making some of the Western inflections feel superfluous. In the end, it is all just flair, a strong look as the backdrop to an empty and disappointing film.

The issue here is the script. The narrative is often far too simplistic, the dialogue weak throughout, and then has bursts of being overly contrived or complicated. This comes from a desire to be weird. It is all very affected, pushing towards strangeness rather than feeling naturally so. While this film does have midnight movie potential, and a whole host of surreal moments, it is trying to hard. This desire to be quirky, weird and out there makes for something insincere and flat. The manufactured feel leaves it as paradoxically bland, despite the maximalist visuals.

This being the case, there are sequences that stand out. We build up a quirky cast of characters, none of them very well dealt with, but these individuals do lead to some compelling oddness. When the film leans more into outrageous territory, it also works much better. Sion Sono, whom I love, has a flair for the transgressive and the extreme. At points, we see a shadow of this. In fact, from a different source, more of this would stand out. Knowledge of what Sono can do and has done, and that his films are also often very intelligent and more widely satisfying, makes this a disappointment. Even when it ‘goes there’ it is not going there enough.

As trite as it sounds, the title starts to reflect the viewer’s position. The flat feel of the narrative, as it doesn’t find enough to do with its potential and has little actually to offer, holds us captive. We are somewhat bored and only have a ghost of what we know Sono can do to keep us company. Prisoners of the Ghostland indeed.

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