When looking at it in a broad outset, Pig looks simple and pretty straightforward, almost inevitable. It seems fitting that Nic Cage’s eccentric career has finally seen him take on the role of an angry hermit pursuing the perpetrators who stole his beloved pet swine. Yet whatever you might expect from this movie, Cage and writer-director Michael Sarnoski are going in a much different direction; this isn’t the lowbrow genre picture it leads on to be. In fact, they’ve more crafted a quasi-philosophical odyssey — a Zen fable of sorts that, while not devoid of violence or humor, largely focuses on exploring the crossroads of passion and grief. It may early on lead to be some hillbilly-noir revenge narrative, but, as it proceeds, it expands its vision and compassion, being both ludicrous and deeply felt, anchored by a lead performance that balances simmering intensity with uncharacteristic restraint.
It all starts with an initial dynamic, one between a scraggily, thickly bearded man named Rob (Cage) who’s on the search in the Oregon woods for truffles, assisted by his titular, sole companion in life. He then sells the truffles to Amir (Alex Wolff), a slightly snobby young man who shows up once a week in a Camaro and attempts in vain to engage Rob in casual, innocuous conversation, as if the latter clearly isn’t interested. Amir does come in handy as a chauffeur, however, after unseen figures assault Rob and steal his pig, leaving him cut off not so much of his livelihood but of the only thing in his life about which he still cares. The two of them head to Portland in an effort to track down the animal, interrogating various members of the city’s fine-dining underworld, all of whom seem to know Rob by sight, name and/or near-legendary reputation.
While “fine-dining underworld” might’ve caused you to stop and question, Pig isn’t quite fantastical, but Sarnoski deliberately heightens his film’s milieu, looking toward a metaphorical nature, even as he keeps everything firmly on the ground. Rob, though, still moves through this world as an unworldly presence, especially since he’s regarded with a mixture of awe, fear and hostility by the people him and Amir encounter as travel through the city in search for the pig. It’s evident from the film’s opening minutes that this character has a tragic backstory, and among the film’s many pleasures is the facility and precision with which Sarnoski gradually parcels out crucial information through tossed-off lines of dialogue or anguished silence, while allowing what’s not especially important to remain a tantalizing mystery. In fact, he’s often content to focus his camera on a small detail or glance, or to cut away right in the middle of a dramatic moment, as if trying to represent the mindfulness that Rob seeks.
But as Rob and Amir each take a step closer to their goal, it seems to also bring them closer to their past. These scenes play out like another punch in the face to Rob — as if, after years of hiding in the woods, he’s finally coming face-to-face with his own mortality and meaninglessness, his own impermanence. During one of his handful of monologues, Rob speaks of the large earthquake that will one day decimate the Pacific Northwest, and at times his words sound not like some warning or a prophecy, but an oblique recollection of the emotional wreaking that has devastated him. But there’s also another facet to his words; something universal: Every day we wake up, there’s less of us. We all lose the things we care about, until we also are finally gone.
Yet through all these obfuscated recollections, there aren’t really any plot twists, in the traditional sense, but each successive encounter reveals a new facet that enriches the tale. Pig stays far away from spoon-feeding its audience as well, instead being content to letting us speculate internally about who certain people are, why a lie gets told, exactly what robbed Rob of his former existence. Even an old cassette tape that looks suspiciously like the setup for some climactic revelation turns out, in the end, to be something quite (lovingly) different. None of this would work without Cage though, and his commitment to the idea of Rob as both a mysterious icon and an unwavering human. He plays him with a ghostly rigidity that slips from coiled aggression to stoic brooding. Few of the things Rob does are exactly credible but his emotions are so raw that nothing can surpass them. Sarnoski, making his feature debut, supports his star with moments of ethereal beauty and the confidence to let key scenes play out at a distance. Like the animal itself, Pig is considerably more intelligent than it first appears, and as it garners your attention it unearths things that were barely evident at the initial surface. A gently and quietly mournful fable, Pig is one of the rare American films that pinpoints its passionate touch into thoughtful perceptions of regret and failure.
Pig is currently playing in Theaters nationwide, as of July 16