Review: “Pig”

Pig” is not quite the movie I—and I think many others—expected it would be. Not that I necessarily had specific expectations for a film with such a bizarre premise: a forager (played by an exceedingly scruffy Nicolas Cage) travels from his isolated woodland existence to the city of Portland on a quest to recover his beloved truffle pig after she is stolen from him. From Cage’s bloody appearance to Alexis Grapsas and Phillip Klein’s occasionally tense score to writer and director Michael Sarnoski’s script—which calls for Cage to menacingly intone lines like “Where’s my pig?”—the perception that “Pig” could turn into a blood-soaked revenge thriller at any moment is understandable.

But then you actually watch the film, and realize that Cage’s presence and line delivery isn’t that menacing after all. He is determined, sure, but he is also very weary, and very sad. Divided into three parts, “Pig” started out with Sarnoski learning about how some truffle hunters will sit outside their homes with a shotgun to defend their valuable pigs from rival hunters. It’s those rivalries that initially seem like they will be the driving force behind the story. Cage plays a character named Robin Feld, sometimes called Rob, although it’s a little ways into the film before we learn his name. The opening minutes paint a portrait of his existence. Rob lives alone in a cabin in the woods with his pig (played by a pig named Brandy—very adorable). Once a week, an ostentatious young man named Amir (Alex Wolff) pulls up to Rob’s cabin in his sleek sports car, wearing a sharp suit, his loud manner as he shouts into his cell phone standing in stark contrast to Rob’s quiet, but strong, presence. Rob sells truffles that his pig finds to Amir, who in turn sells them to restaurants back in Portland, and while he is there, Amir brings Rob supplies from the city. It’s clear from the get-go that Rob has cut himself off from civilization for reasons as yet unknown (his cabin doesn’t even have electricity), but Sarnoski’s camera finds beauty in his way of life, the woods bathed in a warm glow as he companionably shares a meal with his pig.

But Rob’s existence is turned upside down when in the middle of the night some people burst into his home, knocking him out cold and snatching his pig. It’s his immediate determination to get her back that leads him to get a reluctant Amir to take him to the city, where it turns out Rob has a past.

Nicolas Cage in “Pig”

Cage’s performance and Sarnoski’s screenplay work hand-in-hand to portray Rob as a larger than life, almost mythical, figure. Rob’s frequently stolid exterior gives little information away; what we learn of him we find out mostly from the reactions of those around him. It turns out that Rob is a legend in the Portland restaurant scene, his very name enough to inspire awe and open doors that would otherwise be closed. This is the sort of eccentric character we’ve come to know and love from Cage, although his performance feels much more restrained. Initially, in fact, almost all of the performances feel like they are leaning too hard in one direction or the other. Cage is too gruff, Wolff too obnoxious, a chef (David Knell) who they meet at one of Portland’s most exclusive restaurants too ridiculous. These characterizations all improved significantly for me upon rewatch, but they really become something else later in the movie.

By the time the film reaches its third and final part, “Pig” has turned into much more than a quest for a stolen pet, a quest that takes Rob and Amir to kitchens and restaurants and underground gatherings. Sarnoski has said that as he was further developing the story, he began to draw inspiration from his own life, specifically the grief that he and his family felt and learned to live with after his father passed away when he was a child. It turns out that everyone in this film—not just Rob and Amir—have things they are aspiring to, and things they are mourning. The chef at the fancy restaurant never actually wanted to be a chef at that sort of fancy restaurant; he wanted to open an English pub, but abandoned his dream to chase a fad. Amir finds himself caught between trying to prove himself to his father, a rival truffle dealer, while enjoying a strained relationship with him, as both mourn for Amir’s mother. And Rob is grieving for someone too, as we get confirmation that he isn’t searching so hard for his pig because she is valuable, or because he requires her to find rare truffles. He’s searching for her because he loves her. “Pig” starts out as a movie that is alternately bizarre, intense, a little funny, a little suspenseful, but it turns into something remarkably tender and emotional and relatable and sad, and the actors’ shift their performances to match it.

Nicolas Cage and Alex Wolff in “Pig”

As an aside, “Pig” is also a fascinating portrait and occasional caricature of the cutthroat contemporary food industry, where chefs seem to pride themselves more on exclusivity than appealing to the masses, and on creating delicate, Instagrammable dishes without truly relishing the act of preparing a meal for someone. We see this most obvious in the aforementioned scene with the chef who Rob confronts. His restaurant is quite different from the warmth of Rob’s cabin. It’s white and gray and cold, and the scene opens with a waitress staring dead ahead, a coldness in her eyes and in her soft voice as she recites a prepared speech about the delicacy Rob and Amir are about to taste. Later, when Rob asks the chef, named Finway, what the concept of his restaurant is, he stumbles before finally spewing some words about taking local ingredients and deconstructing them. We also see, later in the film, how food is connected to our memories; a particular meal can bring us back to a specific time in our life, or a specific day, or a specific relationship with another person.

But “Pig” is ultimately a story of loss; not overcoming it, but learning to cope with it. Sarnoski weaves these themes throughout his characters with an adeptness that is remarkable for someone making their feature debut. Upon watching it again, knowing the direction the story was headed, I was newly struck by a couple of things. I love the way we get to see Rob make some peace by revisiting places and people from his past, from his old home to a former colleague. And I love something that he says to Chef Finway as he reminds him of his old dream of an English pub, capping off a remarkable speech about living for yourself versus living for others because ultimately everything in this world is sort of meaningless anyway (maybe the highlight of the entire movie) with the line “we don’t get a lot of things to really care about.” The implication is clear: it’s worth fighting for the things that you do. Even if that thing is a truffle pig.

“Pig” is in theaters July 16. Runtime: 92 minutes. Rated R.

Media review screener courtesy NEON.

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