4 out of 5 stars

It shouldn’t be debated anymore that Nicolas Cage is a genuinely great actor. Despite the many low-quality straight-to-video flicks littering his filmography, several films over the past few years have given Cage specific opportunities to flaunt his range of skills—skills that earned him an Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and that have previously offered him critical success (Adaptation, Rumble Fish, Raising Arizona). It’s worth noting, however, that Cage’s recent work has frequently seen him and his characters being pushed over the edge into flailing, overwrought insanity. His fortitude is constantly being tested by the filmmakers driving his frenzied performances.

Such a precedent may lead one to believe the same frantic energy would apply to writer-director Michael Sarnoski’s sublime feature debut, Pig—which initially seems to be a revenge thriller with Cage playing a former chef seeking retribution on those who kidnapped his truffle pig. It’s a fair assumption given Cage’s unhinged outing in Panos Cosmatos’s blood-drenched thriller Mandy (2018). Indeed, that preface is technically true, in that it’s where the film appears to start off its economical and relatively brisk narrative, but there’s an element of caution worth noting here in describing what exactly comes afterwards.

Frankly, Pig is a difficult film to write about; one so malleable in its identity, in terms of genre and style, that pigeonholing it into one category seems disingenuous. Discovering the devices of this film is one thing, but having to describe them is another entirely—yet that may be the main appeal of a film so nuanced and subdued in its thematic impact. You’re not likely to find a better revenge film(?) this year (nor a better Cage movie this year, outside of perhaps Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland), in part because it won’t be what one expects. In fact, it’s something far better; a film that actually bothers to delve into the more humane implications of the subgenre’s bloodthirsty conventions in exchange for its usual brand of violence.

Of course, abstractly describing Pig isn’t much help in representing the experience it offers audiences, and it’s probably best to let the film’s tranquil opening scene do most of the talking. Living in the woods of Portland, Oregon (a setting brought to vivid life by cinematographer Patrick Scola), is a grizzled man named Rob (Cage) who spends his time alone with his pig, an animal companion who happens to be incredibly good at finding truffles in the woods. Occasionally, he’ll cook meals for both of them with a kind of delicate, expert touch that’s beautifully framed yet subtly indicates a substantial amount of past experience. The mutual collaboration between Rob and his pig also helps Rob out whenever he has to sell the truffles to luxury ingredient supplier Amir (Alex Wolff), a quippy, nepotistic young man who drives a Camaro and has connections to Portland’s network of high-end restaurants.

Rob’s clearly a stoic who doesn’t say much when it comes down to discussing business with Amir, and his words are rather sparing underneath his ragged voice. He doesn’t seem comfortable confronting his past, either—when he picks up a cassette tape with ‘For Robin’ written on it, he can only play a few seconds of its recording of a woman’s voice. For now, it seems, all he really has is his beloved truffle pig, but even that is upended one night when assailants knock down the door of Rob’s cabin, bludgeon him, and drag his pig as she painfully squeals through the ordeal. The next morning, Rob drags himself out of his cabin, his head bleeding, and with the help of Amir starts to investigate the tangled web of Portland’s luxury restaurant scene in search of his pig, revealing himself to be far more than what he appears on the outside.

If there’s anything to go off of the kind of brisk familiarity with which Rob makes his way through Portland’s (almost certainly fictional) underground restaurant network, it’s that Pig takes about as much time as Rob does in getting straight to the point about what it’s aiming for. Through an economical screenplay that translates to a brisk 90-minutes, Sarnoski and co-writer Vanessa Block build a layered world in which high-tier restaurants hide grimy basement fight clubs for workers and callously commercialize passions for the culinary industry with nuanced, well-delivered dialogue providing most of the necessary exposition. It’s a truly loveless place, and the film’s visual style makes that abundantly clear. Scola’s saturated camerawork runs the full gamut of wide shots, handheld tracking shots, and intimate close-ups, but it’s apparent that each of these techniques is in service of the sensory details and textures of the backstreets, dining rooms, kitchens, as well as the people found in this film’s iteration of Portland.

In regards to the more figurative lens through which the film introduces us to such a complex world, however, it’s evidently the handful of characters it puts through the wringer—most notable amongst them being, of course, Cage and Wolff’s respective portrayals of Rob and Amir, two men who’ve had a particularly strained relationship. We don’t need any extraneous details about why they’re in search of Rob’s pig—as Rob explains “you need your supply. I need my pig,” and that’s literally all it takes at the moment to establish their objective. Of course, there’s far more brewing beneath these characters’ exteriors, but all that’s slowly unfurled as the film continues to progress. Hot off the heels of playing the neurotic, trauma-ridden son of Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), Alex Wolff brings a similar kind of nervously youthful energy to Amir, one whose snarky, foul-mouthed adherence to trendiness conceals—among other spoilerific things—personal insecurities that emerge as Rob uncovers things about Portland’s restaurant scene that Amir barely even knows about, serving as a contrasting complementary figure to Rob and an audience surrogate of sorts.

It would be remiss of me to not circle back to Nicolas Cage himself, whose portrayal of Rob is the best dramatic performance he’s given us in a long time. Rob’s lack of verbosity (combined with how Cage pairs it with with a soft-spoken, husky enunciation that gives his usual voice a more brooding tone) offers him a kind of pointed, direct insight that Cage brings forth with both a coldly perceptive sharpness and a genuine, sincere sense of honesty for the many figures that Rob meets and confronts. When Amir initially resists the notion of going into the city, Rob immediately throws a pointed question about Amir’s underlying fear and leaves him at a loss for words; later, when Rob meets a chef he once worked with when he and Amir stop by a high-class restaurant, he methodically deconstructs the chef’s acquiescence to a goal he never truly believed in at the expense of a dream he’s still clinging on to. “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about,” Rob says to the chef, and from the volume and cadence of that line’s delivery—combined with how Rob slowly yet imposingly leans in—it’s immediately clear that Cage deeply understands every reason why Rob’s saying something this candid.

That above quote from Rob, however, could also very well represent what thematically elevates Pig‘s narrative to something beyond what its initial premise and revenge thriller-esque conventions might suggest. It’s rare that a film of this efficiency and with this kind of premise could deliver such a silently striking emotional impact, yet Sarnoski executes a consistently mature command over his direction as well as the tone of the narrative he wants to convey even amidst the turns it takes, all while having his two lead performers bring some of their best on-screen efforts; a truly expert achievement for a first-time feature filmmaker. Not once does Pig (even with its silent surprises and its deeply heartfelt twists) feel like it’s stepping completely out of line or going in a confusingly unprecedented direction, as its gentle unpredictability feels both warranted and rewarding in every moment, from its tranquil start to its simmering, heart-wrenching finale.

And yet, there’s only so much I can say or disclose about what specific narrative directions this film takes, or what exactly its emotional, thematic surprises are. As much as Pig may very well be a film about discovery, it’s best that its audience also lets themselves be taken on its gently sublime ride and find out its true conceit for themselves. It may not resonate with everyone by the time the credits roll, but it will linger for those it’s been made for.

UK | 2021 | 92 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Michael Sarnoski.
writer: Michael Sarnoski (story by Michael Sarnoski & Vanessa Block).
starring: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin, Nina Belforte & Gretcher Corbett