2014 warned us all about the dangers of harming another man’s animal companion in “John Wick,” a standalone film featuring Keanu Reeves making approximately 500 kill shots in a 100-minute time frame; that film expanded into two more, plus another 500 kill shots per sequel, not including kill shots made by Reeves’ costars, a la Halle Berry. The moral of the story is that when you break into a home, don’t kill the dog. In 2021, that moral expands to include not to nick pigs in the dead of the night from a ramshackle cabin housing a grouchy recluse played by Nicolas Cage, though if you watch his latest picture, “Pig,” expecting an unhinged Cage match, you’ll be let down.
“Pig” is the feature debut of Michael Sarnoski, who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Vanessa Block in the spirit of Kelly Reichardt and Aaron Schneider. “Pig” might be the first movie to riff on “First Cow” since its release last year, and it probably won’t be the last, either; it’s certainly the first movie in ages to echo, much less acknowledge, “Get Low,” Schneider’s 2009 Robert Duvall centerpiece about a hermit who reenters society to make amends with old friends and stage his own funeral. Sarnoski arrives at a middle ground between both movies with “Pig,” grounding his story’s innate eccentricity in a steady and heartfelt Cage performance. 2021 is the new chapter in Cage’s latter-day renaissance, spurred by “Willy’s Wonderland” and to be capped off later this year by Sion Sono’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” a pair of movies that deliver the promise of expectations placed on Cage via pigeonholing. A Cage film, by definition, must be wild because Cage himself is wild.
Of course, this is partial nonsense, and “Pig” debunks those expectations with work that reads equally as profound as his work in movies like “Mandy” but expressed through an entirely different low-key acting aesthetic. As Rob, Cage stays down to earth and restrained. Like Captain Nemo and other famous literary loners, Rob has done away with civilization for reasons only he can appreciate; he lives deep in Oregon’s woods, keeping only his truffle snuffling pig for company. She’s his friend, family, and moneymaker, born with a gift for rooting out truffles that puts other pigs’ olfactory sense to shame. She’s spoiled, too. The movie opens as she and Rob dig up these delicacies, which he then delicately turns into a rustic mushroom tart. They share the meal. They go to bed. Then, as they slumber, two thugs bust down the door, stuff her into a sack, smack Rob with a bat, and abscond with her as she squeals in terror.
Rob takes the theft poorly and immediately treks to Portland with the reluctant aid of Amir (Alex Wolff), his buyer, a bro-snob in chic clothes who drives a Camaro and jerks off his ego listening to pretentious lectures on the superiority of classical music to every other musical tradition. Amir is an asshole and an upjumped entrepreneur, but he’s also Rob’s only chance at tracking down his pig through Portland’s restaurant scene, from its seedy underbelly to its glossy gastronomic surface. They make an odd couple. Rob can’t be bothered to wipe away the blood from his wounds or scrounge up clothing that’s been washed in this decade. Amir dresses like he’s about to go snort lines with Jordan Belfort. But that contrast pays off the more “Pig” explores the food world, Rob’s world, making plainspoken existential observations along the way.
“Pig” is about fleeting feelings: Love, happiness, contentment, and even grief. Rob’s a wary man. He’s been around for a long time, tasted his own successes and failures, and lost the people he cares about most, like his wife, Lori (Cassandra Violet), heard only in voiceover in spare moments throughout the picture. Now he’s lost his pig. Nothing lasts forever, a lesson he teaches Amir over and over, whether he’s making doomsayer’s predictions about earthquakes sinking Portland into the ocean or dressing down an old employee turned haute cuisine chef, Finway (David Knell). The second of these is one of the most important scenes in “Pig,” the clearest presentation of Sarnoski’s thoughts about identity as Rob flay’s Finway’s philosophy and life choices, the food he cooks, the patrons he serves, and the overpriced, superficial restaurant he operates.
Food is a window. It’s how guys like Finway and like Rob, once Portland’s most prized chef before he turned his back on that life and decamped to the forest, show us who they are. “Pig” judiciously shows pieces of Rob as its 90 minutes gently tick away. But food is a trigger for our sense memory, too, a theme tackled by “Ratatouille” and done further justice here. Life is short, and everything ends, so people attach personal experiences to whatever they can, like the meals they eat. Over time, the meals come in second behind the sensations they provoke. That’s worth caring about, and remembering what’s worth caring about is how Rob, Amir, and Amir’s domineering father, Darius (Adam Arkin), cope with their various tragedies and anguishes.
Cage carries most of that theme’s weight on his shoulders, being the protagonist and the person articulating Sarnoski’s philosophies. As Amir, Wolff provides the audience with its identification character; much of the film is seen through his eyes. But Cage’s quiet, monkish determination to right a few wrongs and maybe steer Amir toward a healthier path is riveting. The man has range, and with every role reveals new parts of himself as Rob does through “Pig.” There’s no action here, no real revenge to take, but there’s a meaty, idiosyncratic, and especially moving story about finding peace in loss. Restaurant satire makes a nice touch, but it’s the thread of acceptance that you’ll remember best. [B+]