If you had told me that there would be a movie where Nicolas Cage plays a loner who goes on an obsessive mission to retrieve a stolen pig, I would 100% have believed you. If you told me it would be one of his finest performances ever in a thoughtful character study, and that it would be one of the best films of the year, I’d have called you a liar right to your face. And then, after watching Pig, I would have profusely apologized and eaten my words. I can’t remember the last time I was so delightfully surprised at a film’s quality.
Cage stars as Robin Feld, a hermit living out in the Oregon woods. His only companion is a truffle-sniffing pig, who sources the ultra-valuable fungi from the ground. Rob then sells them to Amir (Alex Wolff), an up-and-coming restaurant businessman with arrogance to spare and a sports car to match. By default, he’s the only human contact Rob has with the outside world. One night, while resting in his ramshackle abode, Rob is attacked by unseen assailants, where he is beaten unconscious, and his pig is kidnapped.
In just about any other movie starring a middle-aged actor, this would be the inciting incident for a violent revenge fantasy. And oftentimes, those films are quite entertaining, particularly the original Taken, the John Wick series, and this year’s sleeper hit, Nobody. But first-time director Michael Sarnoski instead opts for a slow, deliberate journey of self-reflection, allowing only the most crucial of details to be revealed and exposited at the right moments. Every scene from the pig’s abduction on is left to breathe, to be fully absorbed by an immersed audience. This is evident immediately from Cage’s rise from the floor, his face and hair caked in his congealed blood from the night before.
This gloriously slow pace – never once dragging or plodding, but truly living in the moment – is a thematically gorgeous contrast to the world that Rob left behind. And we’re not just talking about the hustle and bustle of cities like Portland, filled with bright lights and fast talkers (plus Amir’s car), but also Rob’s former career, as it turns out he’s a renowned chef who abandoned the culinary industry for his woodland hovel due to his disillusionment with the direction of the business. His contemporaries and customers no longer cared about the delicate art of cuisine, but about being and looking trendy for whatever new and expensive fad came along.
In a world where everyone expects an actor as unpredictable and bombastic as Nicolas Cage to turn this odyssey into a delightful or gratuitous rampage, his performance is remarkably muted, a reserved, cerebral turn that we haven’t seen from him in years. Part of the praise he’s gotten may be just simply the shattering of preconceptions given his output over the last decade plus, but there’s a genuinely touching reversal of his late typecast. The most violent acts in the film are done to him rather than by him, and he’s oddly zen-like in his acceptance of the slings and arrows if it leads to his pig. For example, despite leaving the world of cooking, the name Robin Feld apparently commands a high degree of attention and respect, so much so that he’s able to infiltrate an underground fight club for restaurant staff, where waiters and low-level cooks put down their hard-earned money just for the chance to punch him once. That’s the mystique he carries, but he takes his beating because he understands just how much pressure these workers are under, and how cathartic it would be to be able to get one good crack at your boss, or an avatar for him.
The fact that the concept of this diversion doesn’t come off as utterly absurd is a triumph both of Sarnoski’s direction and of Cage’s heartfelt willingness to suffer for the sake of others. In one of the most beautiful scenes of the entire film, Rob and Amir go to a fancy, high-end restaurant that engages in the latest gimmick to charge hundreds of dollars for a two-bite dish. Calling out the chef (David Knell), who once worked for him, Rob is able to methodically get him to give up information on who took the pig by reminding him of the culinary dreams he’s giving up to sell out for social media exposure. It is astonishing that the most devastating takedown Nic Cage pulls off in this film is a verbal one, delivered completely calmly, and it still echoes with encouragement for the chef to reclaim his ambitions, his passion, and his professional credibility. It’s stunning in its simplicity and empathy.
There are some areas that don’t work as well as others, but they still serve the overall purpose of the film. Amir’s father, played by Adam Arkin, is involved with the pig plot, and has genuine conflict with his son, due to emotional trauma and the feeling that Amir isn’t ruthless enough to succeed in this business. Could it be reduced to family melodrama? Sure. But the film properly relegates it as a B-story and uses it to allow Amir to grow as a character rather than just being a one-note douchebag. Similarly, Rob has such a rapport with just about every restaurateur and baker in Portland, and claims to have an eidetic memory of every dish he’s ever made, which serves the final resolution. Do I believe anyone can have that degree of recall for a decades long career? Not really. But given the otherworldly aura that Cage carries throughout, I also don’t dismiss the possibility. Perhaps because it’s done to further the character development rather than just get to the next action set piece (which is how it would be used in so many other films), the refreshing nature of subversion gives it more weight.
Earlier this year, in the run-up to the Oscar Blitz, I was able to watch the entire shortlist for Documentary Feature, which included a great film called The Truffle Hunters, about the bond between Italian truffle dogs and their owners. It was endearing, sweet, fascinating, and often quite funny. There are shades of that film in Pig, especially the mob tactics used by competitors to get ahead at the expense of the men doing the work to live a simple yet fulfilled life. But it goes one step further by showing not just the relationship between Nic Cage and his porcine co-star, but by peppering in just enough ambiguity and industry knowledge to show what was truly left behind when Rob chose this life, and how much he needs it to carry on. This is the best performance Cage has given since Leaving Las Vegas, and Sarnoski has made an incredible debut. Hopefully his name will hold the same gravitas as Rob’s in real life before too long.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you think Nicolas Cage was still capable of this type of performance? Have you ever eaten truffles, and if so, are they really worth the hype? Let me know!