“Though it does not traverse as far as it could, there’s never a moment when it loses its sobering, evocative underlying vision.”
by Ken Bakely
At the core of Michael Sarnoski’s Pig is a pronounced sense of restraint. This is not an oxymoron, since the film – as reflective, mournful, and at times, frustrating as it can be – is aware of the explosive potential in its unusual plot, and does the unexpected work of trying to see it from another angle, and realize it in an entirely different way. We are introduced to Rob (Nicolas Cage), a former chef from Oregon. Once a star of Portland’s restaurant scene, he’s long since walked – or rather sprinted – away for reasons first unknown. He now lives off the grid, a grizzled loner in the woods in the company of only a pig, who finds prized truffles that Rob sells to Amir (Alex Wolff), a young restaurant supplier. One night, unknown assailants break in and abduct the pig, forcing Rob to return to society as he embarks on a desperate quest with Amir to locate and rescue the animal. Rob is a man of few words but intense resolve, and through the course of Pig, Sarnoski, directing from a script co-written with Vanessa Block, slowly pieces together a portrait of a man whose intensity combines with his mystery. A dulling sense of dread permeates the film as the symbolism applied to the titular creature becomes clear. With varying levels of success but always with considerable imagination, this is a movie that seeks to be about an intangible sense of alienation – from others, from oneself.
Rob does not just want a pig; he wants his pig and he wants answers to what happened, but direct answers about anything are in short supply where he’s going. Stumbling back into the glossy, artificial culinary culture he left behind, he does nothing to hide his disgust for it in a scene in which he dresses down a chef (David Knell) who once worked for him. It’s instructive to consider the forensic, almost clinical nature of his rebuke – dry criticism for opening a particularly soulless, trendy restaurant instead of realizing authentic potential – in understanding Rob as well as appreciating the strength of Cage’s performance in the lead role. Many have said they came to Pig expecting an explosive turn from the actor, but it’s the inward look here that’s most crushing. I reject the notions of those who say that this character or this performance isn’t fiercely passionate; rather, what Cage and the movie seek to communicate is how profoundly haunted Rob is at the same time. Contrasted with the slick Amir (excellently played by Wolff), who is harrowed in his own ways, we see the contrast – between someone who has long lived in the depths of his despair, and someone who seems to keep running from it. (And then, of course, there is the possibility that there may be more of a common factor between their quests than once realized, as Sarnoski keeps chasing the mystery of what happened to the pig.)
It’s the delicate but punchy threading between characters and their driving forces that can make the film so fascinating. Pig lives on the strengths of these dynamics – perhaps almost to the point of fault. So much is said and thought to the effect of setting up the movie’s musings; Sarnoski treats the stability of the film’s central metaphors and themes as so self-evident that it feels secondary to question exactly what this all amounts to. He forges a journey through Rob’s mind and soul – a pathway brave and bracing in its scope but sometimes curiously lacking in indelible features after a point. The movie vividly comes to life with his taut direction and immaculate aesthetic, but they can only go so far with a film that can seem disengaged from following its keen observations any further than merely uncovering them. Its climax all but demands the kind of finality that the rest of the story has cautioned against wanting, as if it were so enamored with the strength of its early ideas of loss, identity, and belonging that it wanted to leave them there in the interim – pristine but undisturbed to the movie’s own detriment. And yet I’m still fascinated and moved by this film. I want to keep questioning and grappling with it, even if its structuring eventually transpires as flawed, because Pig remains a boldly adventurous movie all throughout, admirably self-disciplined in its execution and powerful performances. Though it does not traverse as far as it could, there’s never a moment when it loses its sobering, evocative underlying vision.