‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’: a masterclass on how not to direct movies

Story and image by Javier Dosamantes

‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’

Directed by: Sion Sono

Rating: NR

Run time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Showing at The Loft Cinema

Back in 2010, chicken franchise KFC launched the Double Down. It was a chicken sandwich that instead of having two pieces of bread to hold together the meat and fixings … had two fried chicken fillets.

The anatomy of the sandwich looked like this: a fried chicken fillet on the bottom, cheese, bacon and cheese in the middle, and topped off with another fried chicken fillet. It was a deliciously over-the-top and decadent idea.

But without the bread to tie up the ingredients, the Double Down was incredibly messy and the flavors were too intense and chaotic instead of complementing each other. 

It feels like good-tasting components put together without the foresight of how it’ll taste as a whole and an idea with untapped potential. 

This is also true for Nic Cage’s new movie, “Prisoners of the Ghostland.”

A neo-samurai surrealist Western with Cage and Sofia Boutella, directed by provocateur  film director Sion Sono, sounds like a hedonistic cinematic experience. But Sono failed to execute his role as the bread that holds all the ingredients together and wanted to be the star of the dish.

The responsibilities of a movie director and a sandwich bread are the same. The purpose of both is to hold all the components together, and enhance their flavors with cohesiveness in a presentable and palatable creation.

Sono had great ingredients to create his movie, but seemed uninterested in maximizing their potential. 

Cage — who’s putting together an impressive cult movie icon resume — had great moments and fight scenes when the director wasn’t stopping the movie’s flow with useless dream sequences. 

And Boutella was incredible, even if the director chopped up her character’s arc and development to make time for his highly stylized metaphorical and abstract scenes.

Sôhei Tanikawa’s aesthetically beautiful cinematography and Joseph Trapanese’s atmospheric score were misused for Sono’s vanity abstract scenes, rather than being used to embellish the film.

Lying underneath all the ostentatious and superficial plating, is a great script with great stories and subplots. But Sono very proudly hid it with a pile of cheap melting cheese — something he has said in various interviews — because he wanted to make the movie in his own vision.

Instead of creating a unique vision and experience, Sono ended up playing cult movie karaoke. Mimicking scenes, iconography, themes, character archetypes and visual styles from Tarantino, Jodorowsky and Nicolas Winding Refn.

Some scenes like the dream sequences when the protagonist is unconscious, or the accented child wearing highly contrasting colors with the rest of the set to symbolize innocence, are straight up rip offs from “Gladiator” and “Schindler’s List.”

Many filmmakers pay homage or borrow from movies they respect and consider influential, with subtlety and nuance (see: “Boogie Nights” from “Goodfellas”). They do this with great care and respect to make it in their own vision and style.

Not with laziness or to use someone else’s cinematic elements as mashed-up ingredients to try to hold together a mess of a script rewrite.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” is a bloated mess of a sandwich with untapped potential. Its ingredients are delectable by themselves and should work when assembled.

But the director’s reluctance to create harmony between the elements of film to show off his skills ultimately ruined what could’ve been an amazing movie.

It’s not all gloom and despair in “Prisoners of the Ghostland.” The opening and end credits were exceptional, and because of them people will know who the true star ingredients of the sandwich were: the cinematography, the score and the writing.

Boutella was able to make something out of nothing, and Cage keeps strengthening his case to be the next Tarantino reclamation project. And like all of the other amazing ingredients in this sandwich, hopefully a director is willing to properly showcase them in other ambitious projects.