by Jordan King
Robin Feld (Nicolas Cage) is a quiet man. Comfortably isolated in the Oregonian wilderness, Robin tends to his beloved Pig with whom he hunts truffles, has nary a word to say when would-be big time truffle-dealer Amir (Alex Wolff) comes to call, and in his quietude listens to a tape addressed to him that – for some as-yet-unknown reason – he cuts off at the exact moment a woman’s voice is heard. There is a low hum of tension amidst the tranquility of Robin’s lifestyle and his woodland home, captured with a poet’s sense of wonder and a philosopher’s inquisition by DP Patrick Scola, but there is unmistakably peace to be found here. And then, in a moment made all the more violent and shocking for that which has come before, a faceless gang comes and steals Robin’s porcine pet. Bound on his path by a fierce sense of loyalty and love, and saddled with the truffle-dealer who has been his only tie to the modern world for so long, Robin journeys out on what feels more like a pilgrimage than a warpath as he seeks to gain back what was lost in more ways than one.
From the basic premise of director Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, we may have expected a John Wickian display of bloody vengeance, a classical display of memeable Crazy Cage moments, Baken or Tacon if you will. But that isn’t the story Sarnoski and co-writer Vanessa Block are interested in telling. Pig instead takes viewers on a melancholic odyssey through the world of Portland’s haute cuisine scene, with each passing restaurant, each old face, each aroma reintroduced to Robin all helping to concoct a character study of grief and love and those emotions’ oftentimes apocalyptic inseparability that gently moves until it eventually knocks you out.
As an actor, Nicolas Cage has taken on an almost mythic quality as years have gone by. The adopter of ‘Nouveau Shamanic’ performance practices has been defined largely by his indefinable nature – ‘Crazy Cage’ as a moniker only goes so far on the way to understanding Nic Cage’s craft. The beauty of that air of legend surrounding the star is that it does not affect him whatsoever as he sets about his work – Robin Feld is every inch as real as H.I. McDunnough or Sailor Ripley or Ronny Cammareri because it seems to me that Cage doesn’t play parts so much as parts of him play out through the characters he chooses to inhabit. In the case of Pig, a film in which Cage’s most eccentric inclinations and lightning in a bottle energy are tempered down to a level more alike a ship in a bottle coasting along choppy waters, Robin’s relationship with his pig is a reflection of his relationship with his pet cat Merlin. The nightmare Cage had after reading Pig’s screenplay showed him how it would feel should anything happen to her, and thus Robin’s root in something on the liminal border between fiction and reality means that Cage is able to convince us of his character’s determination and anguish with quiet conviction.
There’s an internalised torture about Robin as a man on the edge that is heartwrenching – a lot of it is in the eyes that peer out from beneath permanently furrowed brows, and a lot of it is in Sarnoski’s writing, which makes a point of integrating into the film’s fabric the fact that Robin hasn’t spoken to anyone in a long, long time. As he meets with the ghosts of his past, the gravel in his voice gives way, his monosyllabism loosens into philosophic monologues and withering observations – in the absence of knives, Robin sharpens his tongue to get the answers he needs. In maybe the film’s most powerful scene, Robin catches up with Derrick (David Knell), a chef who once dreamed of opening a cosy pub with loyal customers and who now sells out serving hipsters at trendy restaurant Eurydice (by name, one of the film’s few sparse clues as to Robin’s past). As a former chef, Robin is visibly disappointed in the path an old colleague of his has taken, and he uses his impeccable sense of memory and judgment to poke holes in Derrick’s facade of composure – it’s essentially an interrogation scene, with the goal being to get a step closer to finding Robin’s Pig, but the way Sarnoski envisions it and the way it is played make it something so much more. The line “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about” lands exquisitely.
Alongside Robin’s self-excavational journey, both emotionally and literally, Pig also provides a subdued slant on the buddy road movie with the inclusion of Wolff’s Amir. Whilst Cage has been getting the majority of the plaudits, Wolff’s contribution as the try-hard son of another figure from Robin’s past is remarkable on its own level. Listening to guides to classical music and amping himself up in front of the mirror with feeble affirmations – “I am the King of the Jungle!” – Amir is every bit as lost as Robin is. Whereas Robin has left behind a world he no longer recognises or fits into, Amir has tried for so long and so hard to integrate and belong that his inadequacy alienates him from himself and others. Watching Wolff and Cage’s characters unwillingly strike up a partnership is one of Pig’s many unexpected delights, and as we learn more of Amir’s past and where his family and Robin’s entangle, Wolff matches his character’s jittery bravado in the film’s early phases with dramatic heft in the closing chapters.
Ultimately, what sets this film apart more than anything else is its stunning, wilful subversion of expectations at every turn. Pig isn’t a revenge film by any stretch, nor is it an anti-revenge film, and it isn’t those things because ultimately Sarnoski is far more interested in and committed to exploring the all-consuming nature of grief. A lesser film would see Robin’s journey driven by rage, but this one is driven by love. Love for a companion found in a time of pain, and love – as we will gather from the outset but never explicitly be told about until a passing comment late on – for a lost soulmate. What this does is open Sarnoski and his collaborators up to create something deeply meditative, incredibly melancholic, but also – speaking from freshly felt personal experience – something incredibly cathartic. The idea that love persists in times of pain, and that when all the distractions of the world around us are stripped away we hold on more tightly to anything that keeps us connected to our dearly departed, is profoundly moving. And, as Robin uses food (man, the aromas that somehow waft through the veil between our world and the film’s), words, and a promise to find his pig to push him ever onwards as he faces the ghosts of his past, there is a fortitude and honesty in that pursuit which is enough to make you cry. By the time Robin sits down to a salted baguette with an old friend, his deep sigh saying what a thousand words never could, the film has moved so far away from what we may have thought it was going to be that it has become something almost beyond words. By the time Robin discovers what has become of his beloved pig, you sense that all of that which once was lost has now been found along the way.
With its intoxicating visual splendour, incredible central performances, and totally blindsiding dive headfirst into the maelstrom of emotions abound by loss, Pig has asserted itself not only as Nicolas Cage’s best film since Adaptation 19 years ago, but also as the finest film of 2021 so far. The phrase masterpiece is banded about so often that its meaning has gradually diminished over the years, and yet there is no other word for what Michael Sarnoski has produced here – this is the rare sort of film that either gets you or that you do not get. It got me, and I feel changed for it.
Pig is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!