Pig

Pig may be about a man’s search for his stolen pig, but its much more than that.  The emotions evoked by Nicolas Cage are universal, and anyone who has lost a beloved pet would immediately sympathize with his plight.  Under the surface, Pig is a deft examination of tragedy and grief.  Robin, as portrayed by Cage, leaves his former life behind for a (nearly) solitary existence in the woods.  Unfortunately, humans are defined by our connections to others, and those connections are unpredictable.  Cage’s acting is some of the best he’s done in years and should be in the conversation for Best Actor.  Highly recommended.

Pig is, unequivocally and unconditionally, one of the best movies released in 2021.  The only other movies that would be in the conversation are The Father and A Quiet Place 2.  If I did a yearly “Top 10” or “Best Movies” lists, I would be surprised if Pig weren’t included on both of those, when 2021 comes to an end.  Granted, Pig was released in July 2021, and there are many more movies that have yet to be released.  But those yet-to-be-seen movies have a very high bar to clear.

Describing Pig as one of the best movies of 2021 probably sounds a bit silly, right?  If you’re not familiar with the movie, here’s a brief summation.  Pig stars Nicolas Cage as Robin, a man who lives in a cabin in the woods with his truffle pig.  One night, thieves break into Robin’s cabin, assault him and steal his pig.  With the help of his sole human connection, Robin reenters the society he left years ago to find out who stole his pig and ask for it back.

At this point, you’re probably thinking that Pig is just another weird Nicolas Cage acting choice.  He certainly has turned in several highly unique performances, chief among them Wild at Heart and Raising Arizona.  In those films in particular, his acting was just one part of a strange ensemble, though.  From the mid-Eighties until around 2010, Cage acted primarily in wide-release films ranging from comedies, period romances, big-budget action vehicles, family films and so on.

I believe people’s perception of Cage’s work has been clouded by media coverage of his personal life.  Even if you barely follow celebrity news, you probably know that he’s been married five times, including once to Elvis Presley’s daughter, that he named his first son Kal-El, after Superman, that he was in debt when the real estate market collapsed, and had a tax lien filed against him by the IRS.  Some in the media have used Cage’s output since around 2010 as proof that Cage was just taking roles for the money to pay off his debts.  This is pure conjecture, since Cage has not publicly admitted to this strategy in interviews that I’ve seen.  Even he has expressed frustration at this analysis and has rightly responded by stating that whatever is going on in his personal life should have no bearing on what you think about his latest movie.

I bring all of this up to say that you should not let your preconceived notions of Cage or his recent career output dissuade you from seeing Pig.  The movie is a sensitive drama about how people deal with tragedy and loss, and I found it very moving.  Cage’s acting his best since perhaps Lord of War back in 2005, and if Pig were released in December and not July, he certainly would be in the discussion for a Best Actor nomination.  Yes, Cage’s acting is that good.  He’s on screen for probably 95% of the movie, and he’s magnetic in every scene he’s in. 

In Pig, Cage stars as Robin, a man who lives in a cabin in the woods with a pig as his only companion.  With his long, unkempt hair, full beard and grimy clothing, I initially suspected that Robin was a crazy survivalist.  (I thought of Ted Kaczynski, living alone in a cabin in Montana.)  First impressions can be wrong, though.  Robin and his pig are truffle hunters, with Robin even eating a sample of dirt to help identify where one may be hiding.  (Never underestimate Cage’s ability to do something on screen that will take you completely off guard.)

After finding one, Robin and his pig return home for breakfast.  He proceeds to make a quiche, and I should have guessed that he used to be a chef.  Later that morning, Amir (Alex Wolff), Robin’s sole contact to the outside world arrives in a pristine yellow Camaro.  The car’s speakers blare an instructional recording that instructs the listener as to why classical music is timeless.  Amir trades a small cooler of dry goods for the truffle and asks why Robin doesn’t get himself a portable shower.  Robin never responds, and after inspecting the supplies, closes the door on Amir.  The two clearly aren’t friends.

That evening, two intruders burst into Robin’s cabin, attack him and steal his pig.  Robin awakens the next morning with his head in a pool of blood and his pig gone.  Robin puts on his coat and heads to the closest restaurant.  He asks for a waitress he used to know, only to find out she died ten years ago.  He calls Amir and asks him to take him into the city (Portland, Oregon).

With Amir providing transportation, Robin looks up people he knew from his past who he believes can provide him with information.  He crosses paths with Edgar (Darius Pierce), a strange underworld figure who arranges fights between restaurant workers and what I assumed were homeless people in the area, and Chef Finway (David Knell) former prep cook at Robin’s restaurant.  With each encounter, Pig reveals more of Robin’s past.  He used to be a famous chef, one that people either loved or hated intensely.  He lost his wife fifteen years ago to a tragedy nobody speaks of, turned his back on his restaurant and the city and has lived in the woods ever since.  Robin’s search for his pig comes full circle when he learns that Amir’s father, Darius (Adam Arkin) was likely behind the theft.  Amir, constantly striving to earn his father’s respect, let drop that he was getting his truffles from the formerly renowned Chef Robin.

Pig expertly increases the tension with every step of the journey, and Cage is more than up to the task.  Several scenes reminded me of how well Cage commands a scene.  When Amir and Robin pay a visit to an upscale restaurant run by Chef Finway, the dynamic between Robin and Finway is a master class of acting.  Initially, Finway and Amir make small talk, with Robin just staring at Finway.  Robin is one of those people who when they look at you, they can see your soul.  Robin eventually asks Finway some questions, and its clear that Finway is still intimidated by Robin.  Robin is like one of those teachers or professors that you fear and admire at the same time.  Robin may have been a son-of-a-bitch to work for, but he remembers everything.  He remembers firing Finway after two months for overcooking the pasta, and that Finway told him that he wanted to open a pub.  Robin may have been difficult and exacting, but he ultimately cared about the people who worked for him, and the people who dined at his restaurant.

In the last act, Cage and Amir prepares dinner for Darius.  Amir had mentioned earlier that his parents went to Robin’s restaurant years ago and had one of the best nights of their lives.  Robin remembers them, and he hopes that by preparing the same meal for Darius, he will tell him where his pig is.  There are many great moments in the lead-up to the dinner, with Robin and Amir visiting people from Robin’s past.  Robin then has Amir help him prepare the meal.  Robin certainly could have prepared the meal himself but takes the time to show Amir how it is done.  Robin recognizes a fellow damaged soul in Amir, and having Amir help him in the kitchen shows how Robin now considers him to be a friend.

As a chef, Robin knows how an excellent meal can invoke powerful emotions.  His plan works, and Darius breaks down and reveals what happened to his pig.  Unfortunately, the answer is not what Robin (or I) was expecting.  I have a lot of respect for a movie that is devoted to tragedy and loss and doesn’t take the easy way out by providing a false happy ending.

On the surface, Pig is a straightforward narrative built on someone searching for something that was taken from them.  Pig deftly includes a subtle examination of how one deals with an unbearable loss.  Robin has been living in alone in the woods for fifteen years to escape his grief.  That may seem extreme, but the way Amir and his father have been dealing with their mother’s suicide attempt is even more distressing.  Amir has been trying to earn the love and respect of this father, who clearly has no feelings at all for his son.  Darius has been denying his own grief by ruthlessly controlling the Portland restaurant scene and by cruelly keeping his wife alive even though she is comatose.   Darius, a bigger son-of-a-bitch than Robin probably ever was, emerges as a character that is ultimately pitiful for the extreme lengths he has used to repress his own grief and guilt

Pig is built on the premise that a pig is a suitable companion (or pet).  If the movie were about a stolen dog, and not a pig, the audience interested in seeing the movie would probably be ten times what it is.  That said, humans look to all sorts of animals for companionship, including pigs.  (And if you cannot get your head around the idea of having a pig for a pet, let me introduce you to Esther the Wonder Pig.)

Alex Wolf does a nice job turning Amir from an annoying jerk to someone you can sympathize with.  His task wasn’t an easy one, having to act alongside a living legend like Cage.  Likewise, Adam Arkin surprised me with his portrayal as Darius as a ruthless and uncaring businessman.

Writer-director Michael Sarnoski, with only has a few credits to his name, has delivered an excellent drama filled with memorable performances.  I appreciated how he let the scenes play out naturally, choosing subtly over spectacle, refusing to let action overpower the emotions inherent in the story.  The movie hopefully serves as a calling card for future endeavors.

Cage was regarded for a long time as one of the best actors alive.  Pig served as a reminder to me for how good he was, and still is.  The closest comparison I can make to Cage’s performance in pig after years of sub-quality work is Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler.  Cage’s performance is direct, unadorned and raw.  Cage’s trademark intensity is still there, but except for one angry outburst that he unleashes on a car, it is kept internalized.  Cage’s physical presence alone can make almost any role watchable, and he uses it to great effect here.  Cage may look like a deranged mountain man or a crazy homeless person, but his eyes and his voice convey the emotional damage inside that he never recovered from.  The only other performance by Cage that conveys as much naked vulnerability as this one was Leaving Lost Vegas.  He truly is an amazing actor when he sheds the affectations and eccentricities that have marked his performances in the past.  (Just to be clear, I thoroughly enjoy Cage’s eccentric performances.)

In the end, when Robin returns home to his cabin, he confronts his past in a scene that was completely heartbreaking.  Here is a man who had it all, then lost everything he cared about.  He then removed himself from society to keep from being hurt again, only to have life deal him another crushing blow.  As Robin looks up into the nighttime sky, listening to the sounds from his past on a tape player, I couldn’t help but wonder how he would go on.  If I were Robin, I couldn’t help but think that no matter where I go and what I do, life ultimately is about tragedy and grief.  Trying to avoid the one and deny the other is pointless.  The emotions raised in the scene are simply devastating, and Cage knows that we will feel his sadness without any help.  The scene is simple and crushing, and it still haunts me.  If the Nicolas Cage we all knew and appreciated as an actor has finally returned from the wilderness, the last scene in Pig is where his comeback begins.

NOTE: in a bit of unexpected synchronicity, two documentaries released this year helped me to understand the nature of truffle hunting and domineering chefs.  The Truffle Hunters and Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain, unexpectedly provided insight into Robin.  I highly recommend both of them.

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