Nicolas Cage continues his streak of being well, Nicolas Cage, and taking on outlandish roles. Prisoners of the Ghostland is even weirder than some of his recent films like Mandy and Color Out of Space. It’s a visually striking Neo Western/Samurai movie that features Bill Moseley as co-lead, playing a ruthless warlord who exemplifies greed and capitalism. Yes, that’s right. Cage and Moseley co-star in a movie together. Their performances are as over-the-top as you’d expect.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is an uneven film, with a muddled narrative and a few visuals that don’t quite make sense. That said, there’s enough meaty content worth unpacking. For all its strangeness, the film is essentially a redemption story about an anti-hero played by Cage, aptly named Hero. Beyond that, the film’s desolate setting warns against environmental devastation and letting money trump all, especially clean air and water. Much of the film is set in a barren landscape where people are trapped, due to the consequences of nuclear waste and a ravaged planet.
The first few minutes explode like an action film. Hero and his partner, Psycho (Nick Cassavetes), rob a bank, guns a-blazin’. This occurs years before nuclear waste decimates the land, so money still has value. The first few minutes are a head fake, edited and cut to make it seem like Hero killed an innocent boy, drawn to the bank’s gumball machine. The boy was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Flashbacks reveal that Psycho killed the boy, along with most of the tellers and a few police, before the cops eventually apprehended him. Hero, meanwhile, flees.
Hero tried to stop the bloodshed, but didn’t succeed. Through the duration of the film, that fateful day, specifically, the boy’s death, haunts him. He constantly sees him in dreams, running through the crowded streets, headed to the bank, just moments before the robbers arrive and Psycho shoots him. This replays in his dreams because he wishes he could have acted sooner to prevent the murder and more specifically, save the boy’s life. Hero’s flawed, a thug, for sure, but not without a few morals, unlike trigger-happy Psycho.
After years in prison, the Governor (Moseley) frees Hero, but at a steep price. He straps him in a leather suit set to explode in a few days if Hero doesn’t return with his adopted granddaughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutella). Not only does Hero need to return with her by a set time, but his suit has sensors to curve his worst impulses. If he thinks of harming anyone innocent, for example, one of the sensors goes off.
Bernice fled and escaped to the ghostland. It’s more than hinted that she did this because the Governor preyed on her, along with his other adopted granddaughters. Her only choice was to escape, even to a barren wasteland, ravaged by environmental destruction. I suppose that beats staying behind and serving as the Governor’s courtesan.
The Ghostland: Explained
The film’s primary setting holds a lot of meaning, some of it a bit more convoluted. When Hero finds Bernice, she’s hiding beneath mannequin flesh, unable to speak. Another character, Enoch (Charles Glover), explains, sort of, the ghostland’s sinister power. It’s a metaphor for a bleak future. It robs people of their agency and voice, trapping them by haunting them, reminding them of their worst fears and paralyzing them against doing anything about it or even leaving the land to find a more hospitable climate and brighter future.
Enoch adds that for children, the land’s power is even worse. The ghosts shake them with such terror that they’ve lost the will to live or believe in a better future. If Bernice is to survive, she must reclaim hope for herself. It makes sense that Enoch explains it all since biblically speaking, he’s a pious character who shares knowledge, a descendent of Adam who God essentially raptured because he led a good and noble life. Through the duration of the film, he’s often seen with a book in hand, reading to the people.
For Hero then, the land contains the ghosts of those he’s harmed or died in his path, including the little boy. For others, the land represents environmental devastation and the real possibility there is no future. That thought alone paralyzes the next generations and causes them to stop fighting for a better tomorrow.
Symbolism of Time
There are frequent mentions of time in the film, too. Hero races against the clock to stop his outfit from exploding. He has a limited number of days to return Bernice to the Governor. Late in the film, the Governor, surrounded by a harem of women, shouts tick tock, tick tock repeatedly. In one of his dreams/flashbacks, when Hero sees the boy running through the streets, about to enter the bank, the sound of a clock ticks in the background. If only Hero and Psycho robbed the bank before the boy arrived, he never would have died. If only Hero was quicker to stop Psycho, the boy would have been spared.
Further, the “prisoners of the ghostland” try to delay a clocktower from ticking forward. Eventually, Bernice and Hero learn that a truck of nuclear waste collided with a bus transporting convicts, including Psycho. The tower, which is also a nuclear reactor, was damaged. The people fear that if the hands on the clock move, the smoking tower will explode, thus causing further environmental devastation. Nuclear reactors loom over the desert. The threat is ever-present. Eventually, Hero meets Psycho again, whose body is deformed and burned, a victim and physical manifestation of environmental destruction.
Hero’s Redemption and a Possible Future
Moseley’s Governor has no redeeming qualities. He’s a greedy cowboy, surrounded by women. He throws money at people to keep them in line and maintain power. His henchmen kill on his command. At one point, he gives a speech and declares,
“For the sake of me, mountains and forests will burn themselves down. For the sake of me, everything will be mine.”Governor
His kind of avarice caused a decimated world. It doesn’t matter how much nature burns as long as he gets his.
Hero, as flawed as he is, has a few redeeming qualities. He eventually realizes that the ghosts roaming the land, haunting his dreams, need his help to be free. This includes the little boy who he sees whenever he shuts his eyes. With Bernice’s help, along with the other citizens, he’s able to defeat the Governor and free the people essentially. When the (sort of) good guys and ladies save the day, Hero says, “Samurai Town is gonna be a beautiful place one day.”
At long last, the people can live freely, with the belief that a better world is possible if they want it. They don’t have to live in environmental rot and the shadow of a nuclear cloud. Despite Enoch’s warnings that it’s impossible to move beyond the ghostland, Hero and Bernice rally the people and prove that’s not true. The governor, a sexual predator who rules by throwing money at starving people, eventually loses.
As flawed as Prisoners of the Ghostland is, especially narratively, it contains a positive message, especially for a movie set in a futuristic world that resembles Mad Max. Even if the doomsday clock reads one minute to midnight, there’s still time to turn things around. Instead of fearing the future, work to change it. Don’t feel paralyzed.
Even if the environmental warnings and surreal visuals are a little too much, at least give the film a stream to see Cage and Moseley play off each other. No one does crazy quite like those two. The film also contains some stunning set designs, cowboys, and gnarly samurais.
The Shudder exclusive drops on November 19. If you wanted to check it out before then it comes out on Blu-ray today from RLJE. The blu is packed full of even weirder stuff to explore. For more on Shudder’s exclusive and original content, check out my weekly Shudder Secrets column.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.