Pig’s marketing campaign sells it as a revenge actioner befitting of star Nicolas Cage’s recent turns in Mandy or Prisoners of the Ghostland, a story where a man with nothing to lose descends into a strange underworld to retrieve the last thing he truly cares about. While that structure holds true, anyone coming to Michael Sarnoski’s film expecting stylized violence and explosions of the pyrotechnic and Cage-ian variety will be surprised at what they find. Pig isn’t a swine-centric John Wick. Rather, it’s an empathetic and gently heartbreaking story, featuring an introspective and notably firework-free central performance from Cage, easily his best work in years.
Cage plays Robin Feld, a legendary chef who’s been living like a hermit in the Oregon woods after a profound personal loss a decade or so prior. Robin’s only companion is his beloved truffle pig, who accompanies him on foraging trips to harvest the highly-sought fungus, which Robin sells to upstart rare ingredients procurer Amir (Alex Wolff). When his pig is violently abducted, Robin returns to the scene he abandoned in Portland to track her down, interrogating high-end restaurateurs and tweaker line cooks, with Amir reluctantly in tow.
Pig announces itself from the start as a more artful movie than we’ve been made to expect, with Pacific Northwest-appropriate cinematography which renders Portland and its surrounding forests in coldly abundant greys, browns and greens. This movie prefers quiet spaces, self-knowledge and deep emotional connections over posturing and artifice. This is demonstrated both visually and dramatically as Robin leaves the quiet, meditative forest for the city, encountering overblown fine dining establishments and an underground chef culture where busboys and servers take out their frustrations Fight Club style. Robin knows these worlds well, but Cage’s weary engagement, frank speech and unwashed appearance tell us he has little patience for them.
Beyond Robin’s quest, Pig’s secondary arc is the relationship between Robin and the image-conscious Amir. Amir has his own issues, grieving the death of his mother and living in the shadow of his father Darius (Adam Arkin), Portland’s reigning rare food magnate. Amir is desperate to be known as a man of taste, but has none of the bona fides. He supplies and dines at exclusive restaurants, but can’t cook for himself. He half-listens to classical music lectures on his sports car stereo, but never the actual music. As he spends more time with Robin–who he respects but is wary of–Amir lets himself be vulnerable, and Robin becomes a patient mentor.
Cage and Wolff have a sweet chemistry, with Wolff full of easily flummoxed, nervous energy and Cage providing an even-keeled anchor. Cage has some moments of extreme emotion, but they’re never loud or over-the-top. Robin feels things deeply, but rarely expresses them. Cage displays an extraordinary ability to hold these aspects of the character in constant tension, as Robin tries to actively avoid the grief that once drove him into the woods, then eventually allows himself to engage with it.
Pig may have elements of a standard Nicolas Cage vehicle, but they come in a different, unexpected and welcome package. It’s a small movie in the sense that it tells a contained story, with limited characters that the filmmakers know intimately. Its goal isn’t insane world building (though it does have some)\ or histrionics. Instead, it tells a story about learning to live with our full selves, with all the painful feelings that journey sometimes includes, and the deeper appreciation it generates for what we have. Pig is an intriguing and lovely story that may leave you wanting to call up a friend, or possibly just hug your closest pet.
“Pig” is in theaters Friday.