Nicolas Cage has capitalised on his ‘meme’ status so well in the past few years – see; Mom and Dad, Willy’s Wonderland etc – that it was hard to know what to make of the premise of his latest, which boils down to: a loner truffle hunter goes after the people who stole his prize pig. Yet, what seemed on paper to be a John Wick spoof instead turns out to be a deeply moving meditation on grief, memory, and good food that reminds us that, on his day, Cage is a superhumanly good actor, with a soul and range possessed by only a select few of his contemporaries.
Cage plays Robin, a former superstar chef in Portland who has been off the grid for a decade, retreating to the Oregon wilderness after the death of his wife. His only companionship comes in the form of his adorable pig, who helps Robin find truffles in the woods, which he sells once a week to hotshot young foodie entrepreneur Amir (Alex Wolff), which provides Robin with vital supplies and his sole piece of weekly human contact. In the film’s most singularly distressing scene, two thieves (under orders from some Portland restaurant bigwig) break into Robin’s cabin, beating him bloody and snatching his pig away.
This triggers a journey that on the surface looks like the kind of potential Nic Cage revenge massacre of, say, Mandy, but ends up being much slower and quieter. Robin doesn’t want to hurt anyone, he just wants his pet/friend back, and the challenges he faces are less physical than mental, as his quest takes him back into Portland’s conventional society.
Cage is simply magnificent here as a man who has retreated impossibly deep within himself, forced to re-engage with humanity before he’s allowed to slink away again. It’s a haunting portrait of the isolation of profound grief, and Robin’s early interactions with his old food-scene buddies and rivals seem to cause him physical pain, avoiding words as best he can. Cage tells entire stories through grunts and sighs, perfectly complimenting the sparse, efficient dialogue of writer-director Michael Sarnoski, and keeping Robin’s story grounded amidst the heightened tone Sarnoski creates.
Though those early John Wick comparisons proved to be false in action terms – there are barely even any punches thrown in Pig, let alone any gun-fu fights – Sarnoski does seem to have taken some leaves from the book of the Keanu Reeves franchise. Pig’s world of Portland haute-cuisine bears more than a few resemblance to that of John Wick’s assassins – illicit business goes on in underground caverns while sinister villains plot in mansions and the right namedrop at the right time can get you in anywhere. It makes for a strange sort of campiness that is mostly hypnotic, but does occasionally threaten to somewhat derail the story.
Pig’s best scenes are its quietest, from Robin preparing a mushroom quiche for him and his pig to share to a heartrending, near-wordless reunion between Robin and his sister-in-law at her new bakery which has me choking up just thinking about it. Though Cage is of course the star of the show, the supporting performances are superb too. Wolff, in his most ‘grown-up’ role to date, rises to match a really brilliant role, finally gaining a deeper understanding of himself and his world as he reluctantly helps Robin out, while Adam Arkin is faultless as Amir’s antagonistic dad Darius. Even the day-players are great – David Knell is a particular standout in his single scene as a self-hating former student of Robin’s who sold out his real culinary dreams to open a Heston Blumenthal-esque experimental food joint for Portland’s most annoying yuppies.
Pig never quite takes the turns you expect it’s going to, but this unpredictability never descends into randomness. In this astonishingly assured debut, Sarnoski mixes together his disparate ingredients into more than the sum of their already impressive parts, with Cage as his magnificent sous-chef, his performance pulling everything into place. The end result is not quite a thriller, but it’s not a straight-faced drama either, defying genre classification in a strange, swirling, and delightful way.