The Screen Scene: Sundance Film Festival 2021, Part 5

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

Last time on The Screen Scene, I sang the praises of the latest gonzo Nic Cage thriller, Willy’s Wonderland. This week in my final segment devoted to the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, I review another new Nic Cage film that proves to be a disappointing misfire, and I take a look at an unusual buddy comedy with a very dark sense of humor.

Sion Sono is a prolific Japanese filmmaker who specializes in off-kilter genre films with stunning visuals. Nic Cage is an off-kilter actor who can elevate routine genre films to unexpected heights. Sono and Cage feel like a match made in heaven: a director with a singular vision and an actor who will follow a strong filmmaker anywhere that filmmaker wants to go.

So, why is their new collaboration, Prisoners of the Ghostland, such a train wreck? More importantly, how is it so incredibly dull?

I can watch “weird” all day long if it’s interesting or intriguing or breaks new ground. Unfortunately, Prisoners of the Ghostland is none of those things. Sono’s striking visuals are present and accounted for, but the story is so random and convoluted that you may enjoy it more if you play it with the Mute button on.

Cage once again plays a drifter with an attitude problem, but this particular drifter likes to rob banks. When he and his partner are apprehended, Cage is given an ultimatum: spend the rest of his life behind bars or take on a dangerous mission for the governor of the strange dystopic territory where he’s been apprehended.

Cage wears an Elvis Presley leather jumpsuit that may detonate and blow off his arms, legs or more personal body parts if he fails to carry out his mission. The landscape is populated with a bizarre mixture of cowboys, samurai and Mad Max rejects.

At first glance, this sounds like a great environment where Nic can go “full Cage”. While a truly unhinged Nicolas Cage can be a lot of fun, his performance in Prisoners of the Ghostland is dialed up to a 10 from the first frame. It gives him nowhere to go as the film unfolds. His performance transitions from surprising to repetitive to outright annoying.

If you are a lover of raw creativity and artistic vision, you MUST experience the film-making of Sion Sono. I suggest starting with his 2013 film Why Don’t You Play in Hell? which is currently available on rental platforms, and later this year, his newest new film, Red Post on Escher Street will hit home video. Both are far more fun than Prisoners of the Ghostland.

In the opening scene of On the Count of Three, we find Kevin (Christopher Abbott) and Val (Jerrod Carmichael) pointing handguns at each other. For a moment it looks like a stand-off between gangsters in just another knockoff of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. A few beats later we realize that Kevin and Val made a suicide pact that is a few seconds from completion.

As they try to find the courage to pull the trigger, both men back off and arrive at a compromise. They’ll take one day to fulfill a short bucket list, and at the end of the day, they’ll carry out their suicide pact.

The day begins with some nostalgia, reliving fun moments from their past as childhood best friends. However, as the film progresses, their wishes grow darker and more violent. Kevin becomes obsessed with righting past wrongs while Val wants to make certain his loved ones will be provided for after he’s dead.

On the Count of Three walks a difficult tonal tightrope. A moment that’s laugh-out-loud funny may be followed by a moment of shocking violence. On the Count of Three manages to capture the absurdity of Kevin and Val’s suicide pact while never trivializing the depression that might drive someone to such desperation. It all works seamlessly. The film isn’t worried about genre labels. It’s a unique blend of hardcore crime film and buddy comedy.

Do they go through with their deadly commitment to one another? I won’t answer that here. On the Count of Three is the kind of indie gem you hope to find at a festival like Sundance. I find myself thinking about it weeks after seeing it. That’s the sign of a quality film. Stay tuned to The Screen Scene. I’ll let you know when it hits arthouse theaters and streaming platforms.

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