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Prisoners Of The Ghostland Ending Explained: What The Movie Is Really About


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Nicolas Cage stars in Prisoners of the Ghostland, a strange film with an abrupt ending — yet deeper, thematic meaning — that warrants further explanation. Prisoners of the Ghostland is a surreal story of a man's quest to retrieve Bernice (Sofia Boutella) for The Governor (Bill Moseley), which takes him to a wasteland settlement known as "the Ghostland." Cage's character Hero goes through a largely introspective journey that involves spending a significant portion of screentime unconscious. As he gets progressively injured physically, he grows mentally and spiritually, eventually finding his true self in the film's final act.

Directed by celebrated experimental filmmaker Sion Sono, Prisoners of the Ghostland is an anachronistic blend of old and new that revolves around the central theme of time. The film is a neo-noir Western action film that blends genres, creating a wholly unique experience that is as disorienting as it is compelling: samurais stand alongside cowboys, geisha-like women wear traditional Japanese clothing but use cell-phones — it's hinted this movie is set in the near future, but so much of the imagery evokes the past.

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At the end of Prisoners of the Ghostland, Nicolas Cage's Hero and Sofia Boutella's Bernice return to Samurai Town to confront The Governor and free the settlement from his oppression. Despite his weakened state, Hero manages to defeat the main bodyguard Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi), while Bernice tracks down her adoptive "grandfather" and shoots him to death — freeing herself and the rest of Samurai Town in the process. The movie ends with the redemption of the honorable and the defeat of the corrupt, and overall symbolizes the changing of the times.

What Happens In The Prisoners Of The Ghostland's Ending

Initially, when Hero tries to leave the Ghostland, he is stopped by a mysterious bus and mutants wearing tattered prison uniforms, and their interference causes another bomb in Hero's suit to go off, severely damaging his arm and knocking him unconscious. In a dream state, he recognizes the connection between the mutants and the Ghostland: they are the prisoners who crashed into the nuclear waste transport causing the cataclysm. The clock tower and ruins are the remains of the destroyed nuclear plant, and the people there are ghosts. Hero once again tries to leave and is confronted by the mutants, but recognizes the ringleader is his old friend Psycho, who tells him that the Governor is a "predator" and that Hero needs to set everyone free.

Hero and Bernice return to Samurai Town at the end of The Prisoners of the Ghostland, where they confront the Governor and all of the violent people who allowed the corrupt man to exert power. Hero fights off the armed guards while Bernice rescues her adoptive sister Susie before hunting down the Governor — who is pathetic and powerless after having been abandoned by his supporters. She shoots him, then unlocks Hero's suit. Seeing the Governor is dead, a messenger returns to the Ghostland to inform the people, who rejoice, saying they are "free from time." The clock tower falls, and the movie fades to black, then opens on Hero, Bernice and Susie in Samurai Town with the crow of a rooster indicating they've met a new day.

Why Hero Had To Free The Ghostland

Sono's Prisoners of the Ghostland is a Japanese Arthouse film, so there is much symbolism underlying the movie's events. The Ghostland is the radioactive remains from a horrific event, inhabited by the restless spirits of those who died from the cataclysmic nuclear event. Rather than being a spiritual realm, this is a limbo of sorts that has trapped these souls, and it is up to Hero to free them. The movie heavily suggests that Psycho played a key role in the crash, and that he wouldn't have been on the bus had Hero not betrayed him; since Hero inadvertently caused the cataclysm, it's fitting for him to be the one to save them. More importantly, Hero is contacted by the many victims of his actions and is given an opportunity to redeem himself. As he tells Psycho, he had assumed these ghosts "hated" him, but through his transformative journey in rescuing Bernice, he discovers that they need him because he is "radioactive." The Governor's evil reign is keeping the ghosts frozen in the moment of the event, as symbolized by them holding back the hands on the clock. When the task is done, time is able to move forward again, which sets their spirits free.

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The people in the Ghostland are unable to confront the Governor themselves, so they need a hero to do so for them. Hero is first hinted to be their savior when he initially arrives: Hero crashes his car, and his unconscious body is brought into the Ghostland. The people rejoice when they see his "thick red blood," because they recognize that means he's still alive. The Ghostland is a place for the dead — as hinted by the white streamers, costumes with angel-wing-like shoulder pads, and the many, many mannequins. Hero and Bernice are able to enter the area because they are half-dead because of trauma (emotional for Bernice, and physical for Hero). However, they are unable to leave the Ghostland — which symbolizes a spiritual healing — until Hero and Bernice are able to confront their shared traumatic past.

The Boy In The Red Sweater Explained

Bernice and Hero both stopped living fully due to the same event, which is symbolized by the boy in the red sweater. When Hero robbed the bank with Psycho, the turning point was when the latter threatened to harm the child, causing Hero to turn against him. In the resulting bloodshed, many people died — including the boy and Bernice's mother (who was shot because Hero ran towards her, despite knowing the police were firing weapons). Hero's betrayal of his friend caused a chain-reaction of events, which resulted in Bernice becoming the granddaughter of the Governor, Hero being imprisoned in Samurai Town, and Psycho being on the prisoner bus that caused the cataclysm.

The boy in the red sweater appears throughout the film, looking at Hero in key moments before running away. Since Hero tells Psycho that the spirits of those he hurt had been helping him, it's reasonable to assume that the same applies to the boy. The child represents Hero's good nature, and is key to his overall redemption arc. The boy in the sweater also represents Hero's preoccupation with the past and his desire to move forward, similar to the boy turning and running away.

Why Hero Had To Kill Yasujiro

Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi) is the silent samurai in Prisoners of the Ghostland who protects the Governor. Yasujiro sacrificed his honor by serving the corrupt leader, even after the official goes back on his promise of freeing Yasujiro's sister (another one of his "granddaughters). The samurai gets his own (short) redemption arc when he decides to turn on his employer — but he is still guilty of having been a weapon of an evil regime. When he faces off against Hero, there is a shared understanding between them as two warriors, and even a moment when the two sheath their weapons; however, for the Governor to be truly gone, all of his former guards need to be defeated. Realizing this, Yasujiro strikes out and is felled by Hero, his honor intact.

What The Ending Really Means

The key theme in Prisoners of the Ghostland is time — specifically, letting go of the past and moving forward. Although the setting of the bank robbery is largely contemporary, much of the film feels stuck in the past: the anachronistic set decorations in Samurai Town, the Governor's preoccupation with dated ideals, the cowboys, and even the tattered, ruined objects found in the Ghostland. The ending symbolizes the changing of the time, both in terms of letting go of the spirits of the past, but also in a political sense. The Governor represents an oppressive regime: his rallying call "long live the animal farm" is an implicit reference to communism (via George Orwell's Animal Farm), while propaganda posters around Samurai Town, which read "make this country great again," are a chilling nod to the rise of "Trumpism" in the United States.

Sono's beautifully excessive Arthouse film Prisoners of the Ghostland is ultimately a warning against being stuck in the past. This includes romanticizing one's own history — like the American Wild West — or seeking to rediscover or recreate a past that never truly existed in the first place. On a personal level, the movie advocates for healing one's trauma — not just by letting go of the past, but also by building a community in the present and working towards the future.

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