• Chance Freytag

'Prisoners of the Ghostland' Review

The tale is as old as the cinema itself, passed down through the generations. Perhaps you’ve heard it told before. It goes like this: an acclaimed foreign filmmaker makes a crossover hit. Hollywood comes a-knocking. Presented with unprecedented resources and exposure, our international hero jumps at the opportunity. Upon their arrival on the golden shores of opportunity, however, they are saddled with an awful script, either written by a nobody or (perhaps worse) by committee. Sometimes they rise above and sometimes they are swallowed by the all powerful industry meat grinder. Bodies litter the path: Stoker, The Serpent’s Egg, The Great Wall, The Last Stand, The Snowman, and the newest addition, Prisoners of the Ghostland.

Sion Sono has always had his detractors, whether it be on the basis of his movies’ distasteful content or his obnoxiously obvious cult director aspirations. I have never been one of them and Prisoners of the Ghostland certainly didn’t sway me to the side of the Sono cynic, but, at long last, I understand. The Sono I know and love is there, but at the worst I’ve ever seen him. Throughout the first half of the movie, I wondered what about it wasn’t working for me. Parts of it, I adored: the cartoonish western-chanbara blend, the over-the-top Brechtian sets, a delightfully psychotic performance from Bill Moseley (perhaps one of our most underappreciated talents), and the concept of a neurotransmitter that would blow up Nicolas Cage’s arm if he thought about hitting a woman. It looked and felt like Sono, but something gnawed at me. As I attempted to parse through whatever the hell I was watching, I began to understand. By the time the family of four in the front of the theater had unceremoniously walked out, I had cemented my vendetta against the movie’s screenwriters: Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai.

My admittedly lazy career as an amateur sleuth led me to uncover what little I could about this duo. While Ghostland is Safai’s third listed credit as a writer (including one “story by”), it is Hendry’s first. This realization made all the pieces fall into place. Among other afflictions, Ghostland suffers from a terribly obvious lack of pace or purpose, the sort of inactivity that plagues amateur screenplays. If I were to be generous, I might call it “meditative,” but even then, Sono is obviously the wrong filmmaker for that type of flick. Prisoners of the Ghostland is a movie where basically nothing happens and Sono at his best makes movies where everything happens, often loudly, grotesquely, and at breakneck speeds. If one were to slow Tokyo Tribe down at all, its overall inconsistencies and general underdevelopment would become grossly apparent, but so long as the audience is snowed by non-stop ultraviolence and monologues about whether or not size matters, they won’t care enough to notice. Ghostland does exactly that. Slowing to a crawl, the entire second act is spent with Cage and Sofia Boutella milling around on an admittedly awesome set, barely speaking, much less taking part in the carnage that endeared me to Sono in the first place. Even the spasms of Sono mayhem we do get feel softened and compromised. Yet, I must include an all important caveat: despite everything, it’s still Sono.

There are nuggets of insanity littered throughout the movie, most reliably appearing in the presence of Ratman and his rat clan or coming from the mouth of Bill Moseley. In fact, Moseley’s performance may be the only aspect I can praise wholeheartedly. Oddly, Cage is a bit sedated here, with a few moments of brilliance (shouting “Testicle!” at the top of his lungs among them), and Boutella just doesn’t seem to know what movie she’s in, approaching all her scenes with a lethargic seriousness. Nothing, then, can compare to my elation at Moseley’s every appearance. He gobbles up all of his bullshit lines, his Texan drawl out in full force. I could hardly contain myself as he hobbled through the climax, pathetically shouting, “Susie-chan!” over and over like a wounded puppy. Other similar Sono-isms keep me from being able to say that I dislike Prisoners of the Ghostland, but without a doubt, the word to best describe my feelings towards it is “disappointed.” Gone are the degeneracy and overwrought chaos that brought me so much joy in days past, replaced by what I can only describe as the cinematic equivalent of prune juice. With Prisoners of the Ghostland, the Hollywood meat grinder has claimed another victim.