Given Nicolas Cage’s penchant for playing destructive, retribution-seeking lunatics, you wouldn’t be remiss for thinking “Pig” to be yet another vehicle for the actor to seek hell-raising vengeance. But alas, “Mandy” this is not, and in the case of Michael Sarnoski’s feature directorial debut about a more or less Buddhist truffle hunter, that’s a very good thing. This gentle, soulful drama (spiked with a few thriller elements and a couple of scenes of harrowing violence) is a gust of fresh wind in the long and recent lineup of Nicolas Cage films where the actor pushes himself to the brink of physical and emotional extremes. Instead, this is a patient, tender, and musing philosophical film about an isolated woodsman and his beloved pig.
You know you’re in calm hands as the opening credits fade in and out without pageantry across the chilly backdrop of the Pacific Northwestern woods, where Rob (Nicolas Cage) lives on the land with his pig. His only interaction (and ostensibly his only source of income) is with Amir (Alex Wolff), a smarmy rich kid who buys the truffles Rob’s pig unearths and hauls them back to Portland. But Rob’s ecosystem is thrown horrifically out of orbit when, in the middle of the night, two people beat him over the head and run off with the pig, squealing into the night. This scary scene unfolds in near pitch darkness, which director of photography Patrick Scola barely lights to intentionally keep the horror offscreen. (This isn’t really a movie that will make animal lovers squeamish.)
From here is where you’d expect the movie to unravel into a Nicolas Cage vengeance picture, but that is not so. Instead, Rob, who is possibly the most mild-mannered, soft-spoken Nicolas Cage character ever, goes to Portland to methodically peel back the layers on where the pig might be with monk-like calm. Amir, whom Rob identifies as somehow connected to the pig’s disappearance even if he’s not directly responsible for it, describes Rob as a Buddhist. Whether or not he’s a practicing one, that’s an apt description for the soothing aura Rob exudes, and his piercing ability to strip someone psychologically down to the core. Once a beloved chef in Portland, Rob has an exacting memory of people and places.
That’s how he very easily manages to slip back into the life of the city, where there is an (obviously fictional) culinary demimonde below the surface, a secret and probably collusive network of chefs and restaurateurs dating back to the 1950s. It’s there he’s likely to find answers about his pig.
At the core of this story is the relationship between Rob and Amir, which at first seems to be entirely transactional but slowly unfurls into something deeper. Amir has a traumatizing relationship with his father, an imperious and very rich figure in the Portland community whose shadow hangs over “Pig” even if he doesn’t appear until the movie’s final moments. And he’s harboring a secret about his mother, as well as clinging to memories of when times were better.
Donning big-boy clothes that almost seem too big for him, a mustache and soul patch that’s basically peach fuzz, and zipping around town in a flashy yellow Ferrari, Amir is quite frankly an asshole. But it’s exactly the kind of character Alex Wolff excels at playing, hovering between too cool for school and just plain bratty unctuousness. This is easily the 23-year-old actor’s best performance to date, and his shriveling, shrieking reaction to a moment where Rob beats the shit out of his car door is priceless.
Sarnoski’s measured screenplay unfolds with the same kind of Buddhist calm that Rob does, unspooling across three quirkily titled chapters that give Nicolas Cage plenty of space to play in, while never approaching hyena levels of hysteria (as many of his films now do). Some audiences might feel “Pig” is a bit of a bait and switch, walking into the theater expecting one movie and then coming out with another one entirely. The smallness of “Pig” could almost suggest this was a COVID movie (alas, it was shot in late 2019). But in a summer movie moment of big splashy tentpoles, that bait and switch is precisely what’s refreshing about “Pig,” a calm, cool, and collected movie prioritizing character over spectacle. In not trying to reach too deeply into the well of profundity, Sarnoski has incidentally achieved a pretty profound movie.
“Pig” is now in theaters from Neon.