Nicolas Cage Fights to Not Explode in the Sundance Movie 'Prisoners of the Ghostland'

It's Nic Cage's latest in his recent string of absolutely bananas projects premiering at Sundance.

prisoners of the ghostland, nicolas cage
RJLE Films
RJLE Films

Over the past couple of years, a new film festival tradition has begun to emerge: Travel to Sundance or TIFF and you're likely to find that Nicolas Cage is once again starring in another absolutely bananas project from a fascinating director. In his latest, he screams the word "testicle" at the top of his lungs while wearing an explosive suit. 

It's somewhat surprising that, in this stage of his career, Cage has made a second home at the Sundance Film Festival, but following 2018's Mandy, he's now as much a part of its fabric as altitude sickness and gifting suits (neither of which happened this year, of course.) 

For Sundance 2021, he teamed up with the Japanese director Sion Sono for Prisoners of the Ghostland, which, as is fitting, defies easy categorization. Putting it most simply, it's an absurdist samurai Western ghost story with shades of Mad Max. It involves Cage being locked into a leather suit affixed with explosives at his neck, arms, and balls. If he gets aroused, his balls go boom. The visual is really something all by itself. Cage stomps around the movie with two light-up buttons in his groin area, always reminding you of their presence. 

Okay, so the plot: Cage is a bank robber who is being held prisoner in a town that looks like an amusement park mash-up of the Old West with Japanese iconography. It's ruled over by a man who goes by The Governor (Bill Moseley), a sort of lawman-slash-pimp wearing red leather gloves. He orders Cage to go rescue Bernice (Sofia Boutella), his "granddaughter," who escaped the town and is now lost in a mysterious area known as the Ghostland, which is terrorized by violent criminals who were burnt to death when a nuclear reactor exploded. 

sofia boutella, nicolas cage, prisoners of ghostland
RJLE Films

Cage's cynic—who eventually is just known as Hero—ventures into this wasteland, balls on the line, and finds a society frozen in time, quite literally; they can't get their big clock to work and are therefore held captive. The look of the Ghostland is heavily indebted to George Miller's Mad Max universe, post-apocalyptic industrial chic, featuring groups of people dancing and speaking in unison. Women, for reasons I can't really explain, are transformed into mannequins by a man wearing a top hat who looks like he should be a member of Panic! At the Disco. 

Cage approaches all of this with a growly demeanor and a touch of his signature wide-eyed mania when appropriate. (For instance, the moment he yells "TESTICLE!") Prisoners of the Ghostland is nearly always entertaining, partially because it never rests. One moment there's a shoot out, another there's a sword fight. A dude named Ratman is souping up his painted truck draped in Christmas lights. In some moments the frames are technicolored and bright; in others they are almost dusty and monotone.

Does it all work? Your mileage may vary. Though it all builds to revelations about Hero's past and the true nature of The Governor, the screenplay by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai is definitely less interested plot or deep thematic meaning than throwing a bunch of styles and set pieces into the air and seeing where they land. (It's also difficult from a Western perspective not to see Cage as a bit of a white savior, though that seems more incidental than purposeful.) Still, that style and those set pieces are completely engrossing, outlandish enough to make you guffaw multiple times throughout the course of the action. And, hey, if Nicolas Cage screaming the word "testicle" is your jam, then Prisoners of the Ghostland is for you. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.