It’s become something of a cinematic tradition, one close to a cliché. The expectation that goes with a Nicolas Cage movie, that we’ll witness yet again why “batshit crazy” can only have been invented for his uniquely flamboyant ability to go soaring over the top. But, with its monosyllabic title and pre-release stills of the actor in a dishevelled state, Pig points to something different. Cage in a lower key.
We’ll take a closer look at him in a moment. In the forests of Oregon, the solitary Rob (Cage) lives in a shack, earning a living courtesy of his invaluable truffle hunting pig. His contact with other people is limited to once a week when the slick Amir (Alex Wolff) comes to collect the latest box of truffles – and that’s just how he likes it. But one night, he’s beaten up and his pig stolen, taking away his means of earning a living and the one thing that he truly cares about. With help from a reluctant Amir, he ventures into Portland to reclaim his pig, a trip that takes him deep into his own past – a place where he’d rather not go.
Michael Sarnoski’s debut feature is part revenge thriller, part personal Odyssey. Not only is Rob looking for his pig – something he tells just about everybody he meets – but he wants to punish the men that took it. Yet, as he visits location after location, each one connected to his past when he was the chef in the city that everybody admired, it’s as if he’s trying to inflict a type of vengeance on the people involved in his former life. We never find out for sure why he threw in the towel: all we know is that it was over ten years ago and now he eschews material things, living a life something akin to that of a modern mountain man. Except for one thing. The money he earns from his truffles buys him good food and his love of cooking has never gone away.
That’s one side of the film. The other is that it’s a surprisingly sensory experience. The grainy photography moves untouched from the rugged forests to some of the most refined settings Portland has to offer. The sounds of Rob’s life away from the so-called civilised world – the water, the birdsong, the sound of his pig and his occasional whistle to attract its attention – are equally important. It also forms an unexpected conclusion to the film, an audio backdrop to the credits which, at the screening this writer attended, meant that nearly everybody stayed into their seats until the lights went up. That doesn’t happen very often. Perhaps more importantly is its appeal to taste and smell, one that’s implied but often centre stage, reminding us of the power of both senses to evoke long buried memories in just a split second.
And Cage? Buried beneath long hair, a shaggy beard, shabby clothes and the evidence of several bad beatings – you can’t help but wonder why Amir doesn’t steer him in the direction of a shower – he wanders through the city streets like a being from another age, sometimes welcome and sometimes not, extoling the virtues of a simpler life and undermining the materialistic ambitions of some of his former colleagues. It’s a more muted performance than we’ve become used to, one akin to Joe (2013), but it’s a perfect fit, allowing him to stretch his range in more subtle ways and to remind us just why, despite some of his more outlandish offerings, he’s still one of the most talented and electric actors around. He’s well supported by Alex Wolff as the ambitious Amir, embodying a way of life that Rob despises, from his flashy yellow sports car to his attempts to appear cultured by learning about classical music.
There’s so much that’s magnetic about Pig that it sounds almost churlish to say that the narrative lacks cohesion, that there are moments when your attention may wander. Not for long, admittedly, but it points to a weakness even the brilliance of Cage can’t totally disguise.
Drama, Thriller | Cert: 15 | Cinemas, 20 August 2021 | Altitude |Dir. Michael Sarnoski | Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin.