Uncynical movies feel very rare these days. Earnestly advocating for kindness and care isn’t always marketable. But that is, ultimately, the whole-hearted charm of Pig, a movie that marks the feature film debut of writer/director Michael Sarnoski. For all the hooting and hollering over its trailer promising John Wick meets Chef, its appetite is unexpectedly simple, and all the more powerful for it.
Robin (Nicolas Cage) lives off the grid in the dense brush of Oregon. His life is small, humble, and free from modern trappings. It’s an idyllic neo-frontier daydream of cast iron, weather-worn leather jackets, and rugged bare necessities. He doesn’t even have a watch. The most sophisticated piece of technology he owns is a battery-powered cassette player — an auditory portal to the past that drove him into the woods all those years ago.
He forages for truffles with his unnamed pig, a ruddy-colored angel — there’s no other word for her. She is a clear beacon of warmth and love in his life. And as much a work partner as a therapeutic companion with an ever-attentive ear. You immediately understand why she matters so much to him.
Despite the inferred tragedy that clearly still weighs heavy on Robin’s shoulders, it’s clear that he has carved out a space for himself that brings him peace and purpose, however modest. So when two masked figures burst through his cabin in the dead of night, knocking him cold and bagging the shrieking pig, the stakes are clear and unambiguous. He has to go get that pig back.
Robin’s quest forces him back into the world he severed ties with: a cutthroat restaurant scene where his name, somehow, still has power. Accompanied by Amir (Alex Wolff), his young reputation-obsessed truffle buyer turned reluctant chauffeur, Robin follows the trail through the city’s culinary underground — at times literally — digging through the mire of the scene’s moral rot with a singular purpose.
It is very easy to lean on Cage’s infamous wild-eyed machinations as a crutch, but even a five-course meal comprised entirely of five-hour energy drinks invariably grows stale. As Robin, the actor is gentle, tender, and tired. He’s an out-of-place soul contending with the cruelty and lack of care that colors the modern world.
An apocalyptic cloud hangs over Robin’s head. But his attitude towards the inevitable earthquake that will plunge much of the Pacific Northwest into the sea is more resigned than fearful. His past and future are marred with loss. Rather than lash out in anger, he has tried his best to cherish beautiful, lovable things.
I expect many reviews of Pig to resurrect Cage’s career-best turn in Mandy, wherein the actor, at least for the first half, appears unexpectedly soft-spoken and gentle. Apart from sharing an editor in the temperate, steady-handed Brett W. Bachman, I think comparisons to Mandy should stop there. The two movies have very different and indeed polar stances on the appropriate response to loss, but as far as underlining how magnificent, touching, and grounded Cage is in Pig, the resonance rings true.
And ultimately, the emotional journey of Pig is not Robin’s but Amir’s. His abrasive, big city callousness softens through exposure to Robin’s crystalline philosophy. Working in the shadow of his father (Adam Arkin), Amir is defined by superficial success markers and an anxious obsession with reputation and class.
Wolff often comes across as insubstantial compared to Cage. Whether this is by design or otherwise is hard to tell. Winning an audience over to a character initially introduced as annoying and crass isn’t easy. Amir shines more brightly in the movie’s latter moments. Ultimately, he endears himself when he begins to align himself to Robin’s frequencies.
A word of warning to those expecting Pig to trot to the beat of exploitation cinema: this is not a revenge movie. It contains some delightfully strange wrinkles that keep it in a bizarre space. Robin spends much of the time looking like he got hit by a truck. Seeing him wander through hoity-toity restaurants looking like the ghost of Christmas carnage is surreal and deeply funny.
However, due to its strange gait, I am not entirely sure for whom Pig is intended. I worry that genre geeks and Cage fans will be caught off guard by its whole-heartedness and humble scale. For everyone else, what will they make of the subterranean fight club for restaurant workers to let off steam?
All told, Pig marks a promising and impressive debut for Sarnoski, who will certainly be a creative voice worth keeping an eye on in the future. Praise is also due to Alexis Grapsas and Philip Klein’s score, which is filled with tenebrous strings and melancholic guitars that endow the movie with an understated neo-Western undercurrent.
And yet for all its flirtations with more furious genre spaces, there is nothing triumphant or vindictive about Pig. This is a very small-feeling movie, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One of its recurring themes is the transformative power of simple things made with love.
The movie is a lot like Robin’s cooking: slow, unpretentious, and mindful. It’s about finding authentic things worth caring about and doing your very best not to lose them. Of knowing what’s real and what isn’t. I can’t say that Pig is going to be to everyone’s taste, but those with an appetite for sweetness would do well to seek this movie out.