Marking an auspicious debut for Michael Sarnoski, Pig is like a sad vigilante film where graphic violence is replaced with food porn and black market food distribution. Yet another grief meditation to come out of American independent cinema, this one shines with a meditative central performance from Nicolas Cage, one that undercuts and reinforces his current screen persona in equal measure. As with Cage’s performance, the film finds specificity in its sparseness, achieving measured success with simple story beats that make more room for psychological depth than story convolutions. It is a much more emotional film than you might expect, given its brooding vein that runs throughout.
In the forest surrounding Portland, former chef Rob Feld (a bearded and stoic Cage) lives in a tiny hovel with his beloved truffle pig as his only companion. Rob sells her findings to a young upstart buyer Amir (Alex Wolff), whose pseudo-kingpin father (Adam Arkin) looms large. When Rob’s pig is stolen in the night, he starts a plight up the figurative food chain of exploitive behind-the-scenes dealing on the food market to get her back. On this dangerous task, Rob’s resolve of inexpressive grief and fatalistic view of the world is tested in what becomes a confrontation with his past and what he loves most. Imbued with pain and brutality more psychological than physical, Pig’s tonal menace suggests more threat than it actually shows us, but Rob’s internal pain proves enough.
An odyssey through an underbelly beneath Portland’s restaurant scene, showing a dreamlike ascent from the unfortunate to the privileged where violence is always a possibility on the periphery. Similarly, Pig marinates in the tension between the natural world and the developed one, soulfully so, even if it is on the obvious side. When Amir arrives in his slick sportscar and flashy suit, judgmentally suggesting Rob get some modern comforts like a phone or hot water, it’s the starkest of intrusions on Rob’s earth-bound life. As Rob stalks through the city, the modernity of restaurants and condominiums appears profane opposite his intense blood-caked stare.
Among the year’s first standout performances, Cage anchors the film’s simple ideas in his unvarnished portrayal of Rob’s passion and paranoia. It’s not not another of the weirdo roles that define the current stage of his career, but his gonzo interests cascade away to reveal a performer who is startlingly direct and alive in the simplest gestures. His work here is revelatory, molding an oceanic depth beneath Rob’s beleaguered gaze and battered stance that elevates the film to must-see territory. Cage may never have left, even if he’s favored material deeply outside the mainstream, but Pig feels like a return in incredibly triumphant ways.
While the things that Pig places in contrast lack originality, its life comes from the vivid textures it develops throughout by crafting a temporal experience where the physical and the emotional are inextricable. Not mere style over substance, the film does unlock something richly human that prevents it from becoming an empty exercise in pretension. If Rob’s journey is walking the line between despair and the vitality of the human experience, Sarnoski brings that alive for the audience’s senses. Employing an enveloping score by Alexis Grapas and Philip Klein and shot with wonder by Pat Scola, Sarnoski makes Pig remarkably tangible, lowering our defenses for what is ultimately an intimate and entirely emotional story.
A tender wound of the movie, Pig is somewhat over-simplistic and sentimental in its conclusion in ways that don’t fully satisfy the rest of the film’s emotional gravitas. And yet the notes that the film strikes throughout remain the ones to remember it by, the haunting passages that speak to the impossibility of tidily completed grief or an ability to overcome what is rotten in our societal structures. It’s a film whose successes, not least of which is a dazzling Nicolas Cage performance, outshine its oversights, one that might become even more rewarding as it settles on a weary spirit.