These days, kooky Nic Cage movies are a dime a dozen, and frankly, most of them aren’t very good. The Oscar winner turned family-friendly movie star turned bankrupted eccentric snake owner has become such a consistent novelty act in recent years that my “Nic Cage does something weird” receptors have been permanently fried. Craziness alone is no longer a draw.
The beauty of Pig, the new Michael Sarnoski movie starring Nic Cage as a bedraggled truffle forager, is that while it is utterly bonkers, it’s not bonkers in any of the traditional ways that we’ve come to expect. It’s quietly bonkers, meditative and subdued, rather than loud and frenetic. The trick with directing Nic Cage, after all, isn’t how to light his fuse. He’s more like a nuclear reactor, a source of infinite energy where the job is trying to focus and contain it. As with jazz, Nic Cage’s performance in Pig is more about the lines he’s not screaming*.
What the hell even is this movie? The difficulty in answering this question and the myriad of ways in which one could is largely its appeal. Cage plays, essentially, the food version of a retired action hero. He has climbed the proverbial mountain, experienced loss, become disillusioned by humanity, and gone off to live a hirsute, monastic existence in the wilds of Oregon. He has no indoor plumbing, never seems to take off his fingerless gloves, and a pleasantly snuffling orangish pig is his only companion. Think Luke in The Last Jedi, only with mushrooms from a pig instead of breast milk from a green hippo.
“Robin” and his pig hunt for truffles by day and eat lovingly-cooked mushroom tarts by night, their only contact with the outside world coming every Thursday, in the form of Amir (Alex Woff from Hereditary) a slickster truffle buyer who drives a yellow Camaro. Robin barely acknowledges Amir beyond grunts and gestures until one night, some intruders break into Robin’s campsite and steal his pig. Now, Robin needs Amir’s city connections, not to mention his ride, to help him get her back.
The easy way to fulfill expectations and have enough material for a trailer and a poster and sell the foreign rights would be to turn Pig into John Wick, with Nic Cage in the Keanu role and the dog recast as a pig. That would be a fun concept, though probably not a great story. Yet Pig isn’t really a revenge movie. It’s more like The Wrestler meets Ratatouille, with a strange (and mostly unnecessary?) diversion into Fight Club. Robin’s pig rescue mission doesn’t involve any bloody revenge, though Cage does spend 90% of the film with dried blood on his face. Instead, Robin merely uses food to make his enemies remember why they loved food in the first place. His revenge is to make them tragically aware of how far they’ve strayed from the mission, the metaphysical X-Man of the Portland food scene.
Where John Wick is trapped firmly in its own underworld universe, with nary a “civilian” to puncture the veil, Pig is that, but for food. Every character in the film is involved in the restaurant business in some facet, be it foraging, buying, or cooking, all treated with a grandiosity that’s both comical and admirable. Pig explores a subculture that doesn’t really exist, while asking: wouldn’t it be cool if it did? After a year (and potentially more) in which we lost the act of eating out (heh), there’s something oddly gratifying about a story that grants life-and-death stakes to restaurant food. It’s not that important… and yet… maybe it is?
Pig‘s pleasures are mostly hypnotic and atmospheric. It probably didn’t have to be quite so underexposed, but Sarnoski is definitely doing an art, and it is weirdly calming to watch an orange pig snuffle around a misty forest at dawn. It also would’ve been nice if Sarnoski had been able to convey the sensual, metaphysical power of food through composition and cinematography, the way movies like First Cow, Labor Day, Chef, and yes, Ratatouille did. Pig has some food porn (and is mostly better than the aforementioned movies, save Ratatouille, in other ways), but it mostly leaves Nic Cage’s eyes to do the heavy lifting.
I say Cage’s eyes in particular because most of the rest of his face is obscured by wig, beard, and fake scars and bruises. Which is weirdly effective. Nic Cage’s eyes can convey a lot when you’re not distracted by his giant smooth forehead.
In the end, Pig isn’t life-changing or wildly profound, but that’s part of its beauty. It never tries to artificially amplify the stakes or to be “bigger” than it needs to be. At 92 minutes, it’s more like an odd little fling that runs its course, but you look back on fondly.
*Years ago, Werner Herzog attempted to describe what it was like directing Nic Cage in the marvelous Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. “We would do scenes in the so-called normal version, and I had the feeling there was something wilder,” Herzog told an audience at the Toronto Film Festival. “And I would turn to Nicolas and I would say, ‘We’ll do it once more, but this time you should turn the pig loose.’ ”
Was Pig inadvertently inspired by this press conference?