“Nicolas Cage is a guy looking for his stolen pig,” the general premise of Michael Sarnoski‘s elegant, haunting, mournful movie Pig, likely inspires more than a few assumptions. You’d be forgiven for assuming that a movie like that would be some sort of goofy, indie John Wick knock-off. You’d also be forgiven for assuming that Cage, playing the man searching for his pilfered porcine pal, goes over the top. After all, Cage has become legendary for becoming unhinged on screen. And he’s become notorious for appearing in a lot of junk, too.
But within moments of starting, Pig demands you leave all those assumptions behind you. Because Pig is not the movie you think it is. It’s something far more beautiful, and far more painful. It is an existential meditation on the search for something. Anything. A kind of cosmic loneliness envelopes this film. It’s extraordinary.
Cage is Rob, a mysterious, grizzled man who lives out in the wilderness with only his truffle-hunting pig for company. By day, Rob and the pig take to the woods in search of fancy fungi. By night, they return to a ramshackle cabin, where the pig has its own little bed mere inches away from Rob’s. The only real human contact Rob has is with Amir (Alex Wolff), a hotshot trying to make a name for himself in the Portland restaurant scene. Amir stops by in his cool car on Thusdays to purchase Rob’s truffles.
Rob’s life is simple, quiet. Watching him is like watching part of the scenery – as if the character is blending into the nature he inhabits. These early moments have an earthy quality that teases our scenes; we can smell the woods, the dirt, the small little private world Rob inhabits. But this tranquility will not last. Late one night, a pair of drug addicts burst into Rob’s home, knock him out, and steal his pig. It’s a harrowing, horrifying scene, made all the more disturbing by the human-like screams emitting from the kidnapped pig. It breaks your heart.
Here is where you might think the movie turns into John Wick But With a Pig Instead of a Dog. “Ah-ha!” you might say after the big, brutal pig snatching scene. “Now Nic Cage is going to go crazy and enact bloody revenge against those who wronged him!” But remember: Pig is not the movie you think it is. Bloody and bruised, Rob picks himself up and sets out to find his pig, dragging Amir along with him. Rob has no means of transportation, so Amir becomes his reluctant chauffeur.
As Rob and Amir search for the pig, Rob’s backstory comes clearer into focus. We learn he was once a renowned chef, but that he’s been off the grid for 15 years. That time away hasn’t diminished his celebrity, though. If anything, it’s made it stronger. When Rob enters a restaurant and the people working there realize who he is, they’re awed, as if they’re having some sort of religious experience. As if Rob was the Pope and they were the faithful ready to bury their faces in his vestments.
Writer-director Sarnoski does a fair amount of subtle world-building here. Rob and Amir are not moving through the restaurant scene as you or I would. They’re instead traveling through backrooms and places where regular customers would not be welcome. A surreal quality unfolds here, as if we’re not entirely sure if what we’re witnessing is meant to be taken seriously, or if it’s supposed to be some heightened, fantasized underground world. It’s a world where things can get violent, and nasty. Where secret chef fight clubs take place in basements and dank rooms that have never experienced a single sliver of sunlight.
Rob moves through this world seeming both at ease and an outsider. He knows he’s a legend; he knows he is a chef unlike any other. But he also wants to be left alone. Were it not for his pig, he would not be bothering with this world again. Cage plays all of this with a subtle grace that is bound to shock folks who have come to (wrongly) believe that the actor plays everything big and loud. Yes, Cage can go coo-coo sometimes – there’s no arguing against that. Yet there is so much more to the actor’s talents that so many people willingly overlook. They want Cage to be a walking meme, and Cage seems willing to indulge this – up to a point. But he’s also capable of true nuance, and beauty. He’s one of our most fascinating working actors, and here he delivers one of the best performances of his entire career. A soulful, introspective, melancholy performance that is so strong, so present, that it carries real weight.
Wolff makes for a great companion on this journey. His twitchy, blustery character is constantly acting bigger than he really is, and just as we learn more about Rob as the story unfolds, we also learn more about Amir, and his background involving a demanding, powerful father, played by Adam Arkin, who shows up late in the film and makes quite an impression, making sure every single second of his small screentime counts.
Rob is a lost soul, and as we all are in our own little ways. He’s not just searching for his pig, he’s also searching for some sort of truth, some sort of beauty. His cooking is his art, and it’s something perhaps too pure to share with the world regularly. Perhaps that’s why he dropped off the face of the earth and hid his gifts away. Now, as he continues his search, he once again finds himself cooking for others. They bite into Rob’s food and unlock memories and dreams long since tucked away and lost. Pig is a lot like Rob’s food, awakening something within us. We come away changed, tears in our eyes. Pig is not the movie you think it is.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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