In the forest outside Portland, a man’s pig is stolen. Rob (Nicolas Cage) is a witchy truffle forager that we learn used to be a chef—a Michelin-starred Baba Yaga, a gastronomical Radagast—who sells his pig’s findings to sustain his isolated life. What follows is not a revenge thriller. This is not a porcine Taken. Pig, the ambitious debut of writer/director Michael Sarnoski, is a blindsiding and measured treatise on the masculine response to loss. Featuring Nicolas Cage in one of his most successful recent permutations, evolving Mandy’s silent force of nature to an extinct volcano of scabbed-over pain, Pig unearths broad themes by thoroughly sniffing out the details of its microcosm.
The other component making up this Pacific NW terrarium, aside from Rob and the golden-furred Brandy’s endearingly shorthanded connection, is the guy Rob sells his truffles to, Amir. Alex Wolff’s tiny Succession-esque business jerk is a bundle of jagged inadequacies, and only Rob’s calloused wisdom can handle such prickliness. They’re exceptional foils for one another, classic tonal opposites that share plenty under the surface of age. Together, the pair search for the pignapping victim, which inevitably leads them out of the forest and back into the city. There they collide with the seediest, John Wick’s Kitchen Confidential kind of industry underbelly you can imagine, in a series of standoffs, soliloquies and strange stares.
It’s a bit heightened, but in a forgotten and built-over way that feels more secret than fantastic. The sparse and spacious writing allows its actors to fill in the gaps, particularly Cage. Where some of Cage’s most riveting experiments used to be based in manic deliveries and expressionistic faces, what seems to engage him now is the opposite: Silence, stillness, realist hurt and downcast eyes. You can hear Cage scraping the rust off Rob’s voice, grinding the interpersonal gears much like the dilapidated truck he tries (and fails) to take into town. Wolff, along with much of the rest of the cast, projects an intense desperation for validation—a palpable desire to win the rat race and be somebody. It’s clear that Rob was once a part of this world before his self-imposed exile, clear from knowing gazes and social cues as much as the scenarios that lead the pig-seekers through basements and kitchens.
The movie takes the anxiety away from their quest, replacing it with drawn-out tension. It’s slow and sensuous, with a score that kicks in as discreetly as good seasoning, but it loves silence more. Partially, this serves to give us breathing room to digest what we’re seeing and puzzle out the relationship between the emotions we feel and the specifics of the narrative. Partially, it underlines the unhealthy ways in which its men all deal with tragedy. Early in the film, we see that Rob can’t bear to listen to more than a few seconds of a cassette from a woman with love in her voice. His isolation has been a retreat from pain; his refusal to clean his wounds or his body, leaving his flesh and clothing disheveled for the world to see, is more self-flagellating martyrdom hoping to repent for some unimaginable sin.
But it quickly becomes clear that Amir is similarly suffering. Repression, transference, overcompensation—if there’s a way to handle loss poorly, Pig brushes up against it with its empathetic snout. But it’s not like the misdirections of this anti-revenge thriller are solely bummers. Humor bursts through at opportune moments (Cage deadpans lines like “I don’t fuck my pig”) and warm compassion develops between Rob and Amir—and is demonstrated between Rob and the art of a good meal. Southside with You cinematographer Patrick Scola constructs barriers of distance and angle until reaching cathartic breaking points of closeness, one of which involves the kind of culinary decadence teased out since the film’s true subject matter becomes clear.
Part of Pig’s impactful, moving charm is its restraint. It’s a world only hinted at in 87 minutes, but with a satisfying emotional thoroughness. We watch this world turn only slightly, but the full dramatic arcs of lives are on display. A sad but not unkind movie, and certainly not a pessimistic one, Pig puts its faith in a discerning audience to look past its premise. To understand its subtleties. To give in to its odd, eccentric, Nicolas Sage philosophizing. That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.
Director: Michael Sarnoski
Writers: Michael Sarnoski, Vanessa Block
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin
Release Date: July 16, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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