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OPINION | REVIEW: ‘Pig' a character study, a surprising artwork

Cage at his best by Philip Martin | July 16, 2021 at 6:41 a.m.
Some animals are more equal than others: Rob (Nicolas Cage) forsakes civilization to hang out with his partner in truffle finding in Michael Sarnoski’s strange and beautiful “Pig.”

People do things for money.

There are reasons to believe that Nicolas Cage does a lot of movies for money; if we assume the stories about him are true (always a dangerous assumption), he needs to keep the cash flowing, and therefore he's susceptible to taking any remunerative job.

Looking over Cage's IMDb credits -- which have him acting in 108 movies as of last Tuesday -- you can't help but notice that he started increasing his workload right around the turn of the 21st century. He has been involved in more than 70 projects over the past 20 years or so. And a lot of them you've probably never heard of.

I like watching Cage on screen, and even in the dumbest features he manages to be interesting. If there is a dull Nic Cage performance, I have yet to see it. (Granted, I don't think I've seen half of the films IMDb lists under his name.) And he has always been capable of remarkable work. He deserved the Oscar he won for "Leaving Las Vegas." He deserved the nomination he received for 2002's "Adaptation." He was very good in 2014's "Joe."

His latest movie, "Pig," the feature debut of director Michael Sarnoski, is not exactly what its beautifully photographed, mysteriously elliptical trailer promises. When a dirty, long-haired, bearded Cage appears -- looking like a slipping-down Rasputin or my mental image of Jean Valjean at his most wretched -- to whisper with a certain coiled malevolence, "Who has my pig?" I immediately recalled Mel Gibson's over-the-top turn in 1996's "Ransom," particularly the line reading that launched 1,000 memes: "Give me back my son!"

When I saw the trailer a few weeks ago, I thought the film might be inadvertently funny, entertaining in that cheap way movies driven by shamelessly manic performances sometimes are. Or, more likely it was one of those too-clever-by-half movies, like last year's "Fatman," where Gibson played an action-hero version of Santa Claus. I predicted that the trailer would be better than the movie.

Apologies to all.

"Pig" is touching and odd, beautiful and strange. And Cage is highly effective, even restrained, as a former celebrity chef named Rob who has retreated to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest to live as a hermit in a shack with no running water or cellphone (though he has a boom box and at least one cassette tape he can't seem to bring himself to play).

We don't know what drove Rob out of Portland, where he was once a superstar to foodies, other than the hell that is other people. His only companion in the woods is his faithful truffle-sniffing pig; his only remaining connection to civilization is truffle dealer Amir (Alex Wolff) who arrives every Thursday in a chrome yellow Camaro to pick up Rob's harvest and deliver supplies. (The taciturn Rob declines Amir's offer of a camp shower.)

But then Rob's bucolic lifestyle is interrupted by lead pipe-bearing thugs who break into his cabin as he sleeps, knocking him unconscious and stealing his talented pig. When Rob comes to, he predictably sets off to retrieve the animal -- a valuable commodity in the culinary world -- but his beater pickup craps out after a mile or so. So Rob walks to a diner and calls Amir to ask for help.

This sets the unlikely pair off on a surreal quest through the remarkably dark underbelly of the Portland restaurant scene in which Rob is now a mythic beast who, in the words of one of the people he confronts, "doesn't exist any more."

It's painful for Rob to reconnect with his past. He is a sensitive soul who remembers "every meal I ever cooked ... every person I ever served." Something hurt him, forcing his retreat from this world.

Sarnoski, who wrote the script with first-time screenwriter Vanessa Block, withholds much over the course of the film; he's more interested in atmospherics and poetry than in crafting an airtight thriller. This is a character study of a man who has rejected the shallowness of modern life among the striving, who cares only for what is of value.

"Pig" could have been a revenge thriller or an offbeat comedy. I fear I'm making it sound pretentious, which is a word people often use when confronted with something that makes them think about things they'd rather not think about.

Beautifully shot (by Pat Scola, who also shot 2018's "Monsters and Men" and 2016's "Southside with You") and filigreed with specific details, "Pig" is an indelible character study, one of Cage's finest performances, and the most surprising film I've seen this year.

It sure doesn't feel like a mercenary project.

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89 Cast: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin, Nina Belforte, Gretchen Corbett, Dalene Young, Julia Bray, Darius Pierce

Director: Michael Sarnoski

Rating: R, for strong language and some violence

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing theatrically

Former celebrity chef Rob (Nicolas Cage) remembers every meal he ever prepared, every diner he ever served, in Michael Sarnoski’s “Pig,” a meditation on what we hold important and what we can live without.
Former celebrity chef Rob (Nicolas Cage) remembers every meal he ever prepared, every diner he ever served, in Michael Sarnoski’s “Pig,” a meditation on what we hold important and what we can live without.

Print Headline: Cage at his best


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