When one first hears the logline for Pig, Michael Sarnoski’s debut as a feature director, they would be forgiven for making certain assumptions. The film is, technically speaking, about a loner played by Nicolas Cage in search of his prized truffle pig, which was kidnapped from his home in the woods by a couple of junkies. After that inciting incident, he will come out of self-imposed “retirement” and go on a quest that will take him into the very heart of his community’s dark underbelly.
On paper, it reads like a gonzo knockoff of Keanu Reeves’ John Wick movies in which a hitman also comes out of exile to avenge a murdered dog. This would likewise be in keeping with the current career trajectory which has taken Cage, an Oscar winning actor, into grindhouse detours like Mandy and Mom and Dad. However, the story that Sarnoski and his co-writer Vanessa Block wish to tell is something much more intimate, and ultimately affecting. Pig is not an action movie (although there is occasional violence) nor is it slop intended for the trough. Rather it is an earnest series of questions being raised about why someone—anyone, really—would retreat from society, and what would it mean for that person to re-engage with it. Over a beloved swine or otherwise.
Indeed, many queries popped into my head as the film begins with Rob, Cage’s deadened outcast, spending his days hunting for truffles in the woods with his pig, and then otherwise willing the days to end on a campsite he’s turned into an extremely utilitarian home. He is waiting for something, clearly, although for much of the film we do not know exactly what. Similarly, the nature of his relationship with Amir (Alex Wolff) is initially presented as an enigma. Appearing at first like a son, Amir is actually the middle man to whom Rob is selling the truffles. Yet there’s something more endearing, if strained, between the two men, which only comes to the surface well after their quest begins, taking them into the city’s unspoken of fight clubs and the tangle webs weaved by monopolistic food wholesalers.
It is actually Amir who provides the transportation and connections for Rob’s return to the world after the pig is stolen, bringing him to the town’s toniest restaurants, and the after hour criminal activity below. Like the shavings of onions in a gently layered dish, little by little we’re exposed to the details of both Rob and Amir’s past lives, and what a stolen truffle pig is really worth to a man who was once an internationally renowned chef before he vanished into the wilderness.
By conveying an intentionally undercooked warmth, Sarnoski reveals a steady hand for restrained sweetness in his debut. There should be something unsettling about a bloke who eventually goes through town with a broken nose and caked blood on his face, screaming about a pig, yet there remains such immediacy and affection for the characters that the strangeness belies the film’s more delicate aftertaste.
The director’s also assembled an excellent cast with Wolff and a mysterious character played by Adam Arkin offering textured and strangely curious portraits of souls too wounded to cope—even if they seem to handle it better, at least socially, than our central hermit. In fact, there doesn’t appear to be a major player in the piece who isn’t carrying some sort of hidden baggage behind him, like the chains of Jacob Marley. Rob simply prefers to keep his visible, toying with their proverbial links in his solitude. Cage’s eventually ruined face provides a darkly amusing, and arguably honest, reflection of the world around him.
In that role, the actor who once decried the absence of his hand in Moonstruck is once more deeply pitiful. This Pig character is still imbued with many of the strange inflections and line readings that make Cage’s performances so singularly entertaining. But for the first time in some years, they’re in service of a character who appears fully formed and agonizingly considered by both his writers and actor.
Like the elegiac film it inhabits, the performance is a bit wistful, in that it reminds you how much more compelling Cage’s hamminess can be when utilized for more than just a laugh. There is something obviously comical about Rob—particularly when he’s stealing bicycles with the sound of classical opera pounding in his head—but as with the film’s ultimate revelations, there’s a poignancy that makes his final effort to rescue the shanghaied sow sincerely touching.
Pig is a small, offbeat confection, but much like the signature recipes of its main character, the flavor of the thing sticks with you long after you’ve left the table. Instead of being a punchline, Sarnoski takes a quirky setup and studies the ties which bind people to each other, their communities, and even their memories. It makes one hopeful that Cage will soon leave his own proverbial wilderness and find similar absolution in all future rampages.
Pig is now playing in theaters in the U.S. It opens in the UK on Aug. 20.