Nicolas Cage has gotten to a place over the last few years where, if he’s in a movie, we almost have an obligation to at least stop and look at what he’s doing. Unlike the actor’s over-the-top, yet entertaining performances in recent cult hits such as Mandy or Willy’s Wonderland, Michael Sarnoski, in his feature length debut, Pig, gets a real performance out of Cage through authentic reactions and relatively contained emotions, all with a slyly humorous tinge.
It’s that very subversion of expectations that lends itself so beautifully to Pig, a story about a woodsy hermit whose beloved pet pig gets kidnapped. Cage plays Rob, a truffle farmer in rural Oregon. The truffles he unearths are among the best in Portland’s bustling culinary industry, and he credits his pig as the one responsible for finding such treasures. But once she gets stolen, Rob, long-bearded and soil-stained, pays a visit to the urban milieu to find those responsible.
He seeks the help of one of his most prominent sellers, the materialistic businessman Amir (Alex Wolff), who acquiescently gives him a ride to the city and serves as his guide there. Sarnoski makes sure to show us Amir’s candid reactions throughout the film as we watch the evolution of his character almost exclusively through these glimpses.
Wolff’s character is so crucial to this story. At first seemingly a mere surrogate for the audience, Amir turns out to be a key cog in the story as well, and one of the many lives who Rob affects. But he subtly and unexpectedly has an effect on Rob in return.
We expect Rob to be the kind of character who aids the director in keeping the audience in the dark so he can do artsy things to reveal his story slowly. However, Pig isn’t really the slow burn you think it’s going to be. Rob, never as brooding or as closed off as he seems, reveals information when asked questions and doesn’t refrain from telling people who he is. And yet Sarnoski uses this information so cleverly and economically that it never feels like he’s just unloading exposition.
It turns out Rob used to be a very important figure in Portland and still has his hands all over the culinary industry there today. Many thought he had died, and no one made the connection that he was the same person as the one that disappeared 15 years ago after his wife passed away.
Pig is perhaps the best case for following not your dreams, but what you love, more than any movie I’ve ever seen. Becoming disillusioned with an industry where expectations and trends exceeded the actual craft and love that made him want to cook in the first place, Rob has made the choice to operate through love rather than aggression or revenge, as it’s the only thing that makes sense to him.
To others, who equate giving up with failure – whether it be the cause or the effect – it makes no sense why someone would leave a successful career. And so Rob only explains it to people who could benefit from his message rather than as a way to justify his own actions. “Every day you’ll wake up and there will be less of you,” he offers to a former employee-turned-restaurateur in one of the best scenes in the film.
Sarnoski, who also pens the script, would eventually top this moment with a genuinely moving and unforgettable climax. The writer allows his themes to effortlessly ooze out from the story naturally rather than pinning them prominently in certain places. Picking his spots to do so, the expansive emotional dimension of Pig also lies in the inherent way that the film and its protagonist are coded. Rob doesn’t seek revenge, but speaks to his enemies with love, sowing peace even if not necessarily getting what he wants, but getting answers and closure, which he’s able to live with.
Pig isn’t necessarily an indictment of critical analysis itself more than it is of the culture that it’s birthed by doing so for the wrong reasons. The film calls out the absurdity of how the lack of sophistication of something as trivial as, say, a pub can be of lesser value than something classy or trendy. After all, the beauty of anything can be as great as the love that was put into it. In cinema, many critics understand that low-brow schlock can not only be good but, at times, as deserving of our time and conversation as high-brow Oscar bait. The culinary world, as we see here, is much more black and white.
As a lowly truffle forager, Rob still finds himself at the mercy of an industry he so desperately wanted to flee from. His love for food prevented him from leaving fully, and now his lack of power is taking away the one other thing in life that he loves: his pig.
A revenge movie in the least literal way possible, Pig‘s redeeming value won’t be in the closure that comes from Rob’s journey, but in how he’s able to change those around him, and the solace a chef who “never forgets a single person he’s served” can find from that. Cage is magnificent as he seems to understand this character more than any other he’s ever played, and I hope this performance not only garners him awards attention, but future roles with as much soul as this one does. He and Sardoski make an excellent team.