Let the acting ability of Nicolas Cage never again be called into question! Despite a run from 1983 to 2002 that almost any other actor would envy, Cage’s career became a punchline due to an extended period where he began taking almost any role offered to him in order to pay off his debts. But whether he’s giving the greatest performance you’ll ever see in Leaving Las Vegas or something goofy like The Wicker Man, Cage always brings a 100% emotional honesty to his characters – a trait that remains unparalleled in any of his contemporaries. And in Pig, a treatise on nature, grief, and the meaning of creating art in an unforgiving world, Cage proves that, when coupled with a smart script and a director who knows what the f*ck he’s doing, he will continue to turn in dazzling work that will leave you broken and moved in the soft illumination of the projection light.
Robin Feld (Cage) lives alone in the forests of Oregon. He is a man of few words, and few actions. He spends his days hunting for truffles with his beloved foraging pig, and his nights cooking with whatever ingredients he could find. His only contact with the outside world is Amir (Alex Wolff), a douchey trader who’s made a name for himself selling Robin’s truffles to the trendy restaurants in Portland. However, one night, Robin’s life is upended when two impoverished drug addicts break into his cabin, beat him up, and kidnap his pig. Heartbroken at the loss, Robin calls Amir, and together the duo goes on an extended mission through the Portland culinary world, from its customer-facing top to its seedy underbelly, in a desperate bid to get Robin’s pig back.
Despite its simple title and ridiculous premise, Pig is a film about a great many things. It is a film about the beauty of nature, and of art; of capitalism and humanity; of grief, and gentrification, and the hipster subculture, and beyond. Writer/director Michael Sarnoski has designed his film to explore the messiness of the modern age, in all its shortcomings, and, surprisingly, in all its glory. Take, for instance, the central duo of Robin and Amir. This is the juxtaposition of the old and new world, of art vs. commerce. Amir is a city slicker, who first appears in a suit and sunglasses driving a Camero. It’s a massive culture shock when compared to our original simplicity in Robin’s rustic life. They represent the duality of creation, of art and nature vs. commerce and business, and the ultimate moral decay of society.
Robin has, in his time on Earth, seen the beauty in humanity as well as its nasty, ugly underbelly, and his sensitive core has driven him to a point of waiting for humanity’s destruction. However, that sensitive core is precisely what makes his art – created with love and with genius – so pure. In particular, it’s why Amir, whose running joke involves listening to an opera station where armchair analysts comment on the art without much thought into the meaning. As Amir comes to realize, great art cannot be quantified or explained. It is purely to be experienced.
However, while there’s still hope for Amir – as his bonding journey with Robin will slowly teach us – the purpose of this film is to show how the forces of commerce have not only damaged art itself – it has damaged the soul of humanity. Each and every turn of the film involves a new look at the abuse and waste and filth that underlies our culture, particularly in our food industry. The film is a scathing indictment of the gig economy, forcing out artists and auteurs and hard workers with scroungers and freelancers, leaving those who serve the upper classes to live on scraps. Some of these metaphors are found in realistic metaphors, like the hipster gentrification of Portland that left broken hacks to appeal to whatever the powers that be have deemed trendy.
Other metaphors are more surreal – including an underground fight club where rich people pay to beat the sh*t out of desperate hospitality employees. And at the end of the mystery at the center of this story, despite all the hipsters, junkies, criminals, restauranteurs, and beyond that our duo encounters, the answer – as it so often is – is just some rich douchey businessman. The film is not posited as some sort of Eat The Rich fable, or anti-business lecture. Even the villains have souls, at the end of the day. Instead, Pig is merely a parable, a Biblical, archetypal tale of greed’s destructive, decaying power, and the effect it has on society.
However, perhaps even more so than a tale of greed and moral bankruptcy, Pig is a story about grief, and how time – and the world it inhabits – moves on. There’s an overwhelming sense of trying to recapture something dead forever at the heart of Pig. We learn throughout the course of the film that Robin was once an acclaimed chef, who gave everything up – his career, his restaurant, everything – when his beloved wife died. When Robin returns to Portland at the start of this film, the world he goes back to is unrecognizable to him. The bartender he looks for died 10 years prior. The house he used to live in has removed his garden and an old tree he’d planted.
There’s a reason, after all, that the biggest restaurant the main duo visits is called “Eurydice” – the bride of Orpheus whom he tries to reclaim from the Land of the Dead, only to lose her yet again at the last second. Michael Sarnoski is consistently alternating between the weird and the spiritual, capturing a world of grief and despair, and the complicated role it plays – as a devastating force, as a force to be channeled into beauty and art, and an indescribable, inescapable feeling of dread to be both embraced and overcome.
Pig is elevated by a smart, deliberate film that moves at its own pace, allowing for quiet, reflective sequences of compassion and pain. It’s a sparse film – the action is sparked by the simple exchange “They took my pig.” “Motherf*ckers!” Robin himself, as spoken by Cage, knows exactly how to make the most of his few words. Upon hearing about Amir’s tough childhood, he simply states, “Your dad sounds terrible. He’s not very supportive.” Each line in each scene carries with it a sense of pain and warmth, but lest you think this is a dark film, Sarnoski laces the film with a vibrant wit, in order to keep things moving and add to the experience.
There’s some terrific hipster satire (watching a waitress try to describe a lunch order is a work of art), and the film is broken up into food-based “Parts” – one of my silliest cinematic obsessions (you have onscreen chapters in your film, and you’re instantly upped a half-letter grade). There are a few juvenile lines, especially in the writing of Amir’s outbursts, but the film always recovers, reclaiming its heart and its wit with nary a stumble.
I also want to take a moment to praise the cinematography by Patrick Scola, which remains some of the best I’ve seen all year. Tying into the aforementioned Orpheus and Eurydice myth, there is a remarkable shot tracking through a tunnel into Portland, showing the shift from the natural world into the Hellish industrialization that is the modern world. The world is captured in gruff, but vivid greys, adding a sense of decay and disgust to the world around them. There’s a hilarious bit where Cage’s dirt-caked Robin walks into a field of food trucks and hipsters, to the shock and dismissal of the youngsters around him. The only time Scola’s cinematography comes to life is when there’s music playing (including great uses of “I’m On Fire,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Only Have Eyes For You,” and “Dies Irae”) or whenever there’s food onscreen. Oh, you bet your ass there’s some impeccable food porn up in here.
And yet nothing in this film – not the script, not the direction, not the cinematography – can live up to the majesty that is the performance by Nicolas Cage. From the jump, Cage is giving us a master class in acting, reminding us why he is one of the most original, distinctive actors in the business…maybe ever. He captures our attention from the jump, bottling his pain deep inside as he channels his empathy and love into his sweet relationship with his pig. From every frame onward, Cage is quiet and reflective, studying the world around him and only occasionally giving us glimpses of the broken man deep inside.
There is so much depth in his expressive, disfigured face, filled with sadness and anger and begrudging respect, whether he’s baking, staring down an old acquaintance, or trying (and failing) to listen to the tape of his dead wife. He makes every monosyllabic sentence a meal, only breaking from the formula when he utterly eviscerates a chef he used to know in a terrific, mesmerizing scene. “Why do you care about these people?” he asks, without any sense of malice or anger. “They don’t care about you…every day you wake up, there will be less of you.” It’s a master class in acting, and the most I’ve loved one of my favorite actors in almost two decades.
While Cage is the main draw here, I do want to praise his costars. I’ve never been a huge fan of Alex Wolff – not even in Hereditary – but he is truly impressive here. He makes a terrific douchebag yuppie, and yet still manages to nail a pair of heavy monologues regarding his backstory. Gretchen Corbett has perhaps the most perfect face and acting style for this type of film, playing an underground truffle dealer Amir associates with. David Knell plays Chef Derek, who shares an incredible scene with Cage’s Robin that he absolutely nails. And you can never go wrong with Adam Arkin, a terrific character actor who is so unbelievably great as businessman Darius. Arkin strikes the balance between sleazy/awful and enough humanity to round out his character. He’s perhaps the only character actor out there who so fluidly can make me hate him in one scene and break my heart the next.
Pig is a good film made great by an unbelievable central performance. It is a film that could be misanthropic and miserable, and yet never gives into the darkness. This is a film about humanity’s inherent goodness despite its own shortcomings, and the potential for change despite overwhelming forces against it. This is a film about the goodness in every human, and the potential for change despite overwhelming forces against it. It is a film about grief and change, of food and love, all anchored by Nicolas Cage doing what he does best: give terrific performances. Let Pig put to rest any doubt surrounding Nicolas Cage the actor: he shall henceforth be rightfully considered one of our greatest actors of all time.
Pig is now available to rent on any VOD platform