Nicolas Cage Is At His Most Memorable in Uniquely Original ‘Pig’

Whenever Nicolas Cage appears in a new film there tends to be either eye rolls or eyebrows arched in befuddled curiosity. Ever since his action star streak from the ‘90s flamed out, Cage has been a fixture in the land of arthouse and strange indies. But when artists take chances there are always results. Now we have “Pig,” a strange, alluring and richly atmospheric film difficult to categorize. Take a moment to consider that what we have here is a potent expression of caring, captured wonderfully by Cage as a man who is desperate to rescue his truffle pig. Recently movies have become such factory product and franchise blenders that the sheer originality of this little movie makes it poetic by comparison.

Rob (Cage) lives in the woods of Oregon like a man out of time. He owns little that is modern and seems to exist in quiet content inside his cabin. His sole companion is a pig, called “Pig,” who also provides his living. She knows how to sniff out truffles and other, more intoxicating fungi which is then purchased by Amir (Alex Wolff), who drives a sports car and has the air of a casual gangster. A pair of attackers later raid the cabin and take Pig, leaving Rob in furious anguish. He treks to Portland with Amir, hoping to get any leads on where Pig might be. It is a journey into an underworld where Rob was once a legendary chef, and his name carries respect and fear even at local gentrified joints. But finding Pig might mean having to face a dangerous, criminal foe.

Describing the plot of “Pig” is very deceptive. To say “kidnapped pig,” “underworld” and “Nicolas Cage” is to suggest we’re in for a porcine version of “John Wick.” Fans of Cage’s adrenaline action films or B-movie romps should know right now there is little action or even violence in this movie. The only link to anything in Wick’s orbit is the symbolism of a man obsessed with avenging his beloved animal companion. Director Michael Sarnoski is not in a rush to generate quick suspense, even if the movie runs at a brisk 1 hour and 30 minutes. He’s after melancholy and the hurt of not knowing where a loved one is. Unlike the cartoonish action of movies like “Taken,” much of “Pig” feels like a moody odyssey because of its starkness. The Oregon woodlands where Rob lives are overcast and wet, and his cabin is a rugged, shadowy place where only a man entirely comfortable in his head can live. Cage looks like his long-haired hero from “Con Air” reduced to a silent, scarred man who doesn’t even bother to wipe the blood off his face after a brawl. Gone is the wild-eyed Cage from another of his best recent films, “Mandy,” where he avenged a murdered wife with a chainsaw in a heavy metal landscape. 

While “Pig” features a small gallery of other characters, Cage and Alex Wolff, who was so memorable in Ari Aster’s “Hereditary,” are the central focus. Their journey is made-up of a series of moments. They visit old haunts where we only get a glimpse of who Rob was years ago. The chef at a trendy restaurant serving truffles is a former student of Rob’s, and freezes in pure humiliation when Rob wonders why he’s wasting his life serving fake luxury to shallow customers when he once spoke of wanting to open a pub. Cage creates pure tension in such moments by keeping his volume low, his stare direct. When he asks, “where’s my pig?” It is as earnest as any parent seeking a missing child. Wolff never raises the volume either. He’s the more level-headed rich kid who genuinely wants to help Rob, probably because his own father, the mobster Darius (played with controlled venom by Adam Arkin), is so domineering. 

Sanorski’s screenplay, written with Vanessa Block, lets these actors all deliver excellent work because it’s an oddball creation written with intelligence. Not too much is said, but enough is revealed to tell us about this world. Rob has a cassette tape of a woman’s voice, and he can only hear it briefly before having to shut it off. Heartbreak of some sort has brought him to this place in life and the same goes for Darius and Amir, who cryptically speak of a woman they lost in their lives. “Pig” never gives them easy salvation through action or plot twists. Sanorski’s cinematographer, Patrick Scola, shoots the story with little movement save for some smooth tracking shots. Gunfire resolves nothing in this movie, instead a final standoff can mean breaking someone emotionally with a well-cooked meal.

Despite Nicolas Cage’s reputation for manic, kinetic performances, he can be quite the chameleon. Over the last few years he’s played everything from a sensei fighting aliens to a pilot facing the rapture. His face is nearly the real pull of “Pig,” just in the way he conveys determination and worry. His one, semi-apocalyptic monologue is almost whispered when he describes to Amir how the world will end. Remember he did win an Oscar in 1995 for that portrait of absolute emotional despair, “Leaving Las Vegas.” With “Pig” Cage proves he can pull surprising depths out of unique and strange material. “Pig” is not a cute animal adventure or an action thriller. Walk into it in the right mindset, cleansed of any loud popcorn expectations. If successful “Pig” will convince viewers of two key truths: Nicolas Cage can still act and missing a loved one really cuts deep, no matter what species.

Pig” releases July 16 in select theaters.