Synopsis: A truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregonian wilderness must return to his past in Portland in search of his beloved foraging pig after she is kidnapped.
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin
Director: Michael Sarnoski
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: I only heard about Pig but a few short weeks back when indie studio NEON started advertising the trailer for it on social media. A Nicolas Cage movie about a man that loses his pig and is going to find the men that took her? Gulp. The trailer looked bleak. The prospects looked dim. The film just didn’t look like it had a lot to it and while NEON is always known for producing, if nothing else, work that is challenging for the viewer, I didn’t know if I wanted to see Cage running around appearing disheveled looking for his swine only to find out she became last Wednesday’s BLT. I mean, this was NEON after all, and they’ve released some pretty out-there stuff.
While I’d heard some positive items about the movie, I’ve largely kept my head down until it came to me and by then, I was sort of nervous to watch it. My feeling of discomfort had only grown, and I just struggled with not wanting to have a bad experience with anything animal related, pig or Nic Cage otherwise. I’m someone that was a Cage supporter for longer than most. I was there with him in the early years, even through the Peggy Sue Got Married kind of weird days and into his blockbuster Simpson/Bruckheimer box office boffo smash summers. I stuck around for the dramatic reaches, into the Oscar win, the descent into Crazy Eyes Cage (did it start with De Palmas Snake Eyes in 1998?) and even for the decline of selection in roles, but I started to draw the line at the numerous titles that bypassed theaters and went straight to video. While Mandy and Color Out of Space were fine examples of a director’s superlative vision holding Cage at bay, would a first-time feature director’s quiet and simple movie keep Cage’s zeal monster at bay?
A case where the stars aligned and good fortune shone down on many, Pig is one of those movies that come along rarely in the career of a number of actors and Cage happens to be the beneficiary of this gift. Co-writer and director Michael Sarnoski’s film may have a brief, blunt, title but its lasting impact is felt long after the credits have completed. Its success drives deep into using one’s own introspection as the thorniest weapon against your opponent instead of physical violence and the result is both a stunning film and the best performance Cage has given since his Oscar-winning turn in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas. Many in the industry and critics group alike thought Cage would never again make it to reputable awards consideration again, this is the movie and performance to prove them wrong.
Living a solitary live in the woods of Oregon with only a small foraging pig to keep him company, Rob (Cage, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) spends the days roaming the forest digging up precious truffles that fetch a pretty penny in nouveau bistros specializing in the latest in haute cuisine. From what we gather, the only interaction he has is a once-a-week visit with Amir (Alex Wolff, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), a restaurant rep trying to make a name for himself in the business and step out of his imperious father’s (Adam Arkin, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later) looming shadow. Not that Amir is the kindest of souls. He drives a bougie car and has some choice words for the friendly pig that just wants to greet a new face. A lone cassette with his name labeled on it that begins to play a song we barely hear tells us that Rob had a life before all this…but what, we don’t know.
This tranquil routine is disrupted when Rob’s precious companion is violently stolen, leaving him bloodied and even more bedraggled looking than before. Barely taking time to gather his thoughts, he hoofs it to the nearest form of civilization and calls the one person he knows may have answers…Amir. Together, the men enter into a search not just for the whereabouts of the pig, who stole it, and why, but eventually into the recesses of a complicated past Rob has spent a significant amount of time trying to bury. Once an esteemed chef with a name that still carries weight in current circles, a tragedy caused him to retreat and withdraw, eventually finding a less interactive way to remain connected to his former profession through his truffle hunting. A photographic memory proves useful when encountering old employees, rivals, and meals cooked, and the ability to read people is an effective method of getting the information he needs without having to exert much force.
Cage being Cage, I honestly though Pig was going to be a lot more hard-boiled than it turned out to be. Instead, Sarnoski and his co-screenwriter Vanessa Block have turned their story over-easy, allowing its gentle beats to gradually land as we learn more about Rob through small interactions with people he crosses paths with after years of separation. I often found myself holding my breath, crossing my fingers the film could maintain its mood and thankfully it always stayed on track. The crown jewel centerpiece of Pig is a restaurant scene in which Cage unravels the life of a man he seeks answers from in one haunting speech. Make sure you are free from distraction during this sequence because it’s one that I swear Sarnoski has left a slight pause for at the end for audiences to recover with applause, a few deep breaths, or both.
It pleases me to no end that Cage is so finely tuned to the role, never going too big or even too small when Rob turns totally inward during moments of grief. It shows you that when Cage really wants to do it right, he can, and when he’s only doing it for the money that lack of commitment is also visible. For Pig, he’s firing on all cylinders and is backed by Wolff’s slick up and comer that finds himself in the middle of his own personal journey while tagging along on Rob’s. Arkin’s brief turn is quite a departure for him but works all the same, it’s only two scenes but the weight placed on the first one adds to the nuances that must be offered in the second.
Frankly, I don’t care much for films that break things down into chapters and if there’s one element of Pig that I could lose it would be the screenplay quite literally making it a three-chapter melodrama. That’s just one small quibble in what is a feast of delights being offered to us. For Sarnoski, it’s a wonderful way to start a feature film career, a calling card that speaks to talent as a writer and a director. With Cage, it demonstrates again why he’s an actor to be taken seriously, even when he has trouble taking himself seriously. Right now, he’s in the zone and I hope he stays there.