It’s the pig’s terrified squeals that get you. Pig, written and directed by Michael Sarnoski and starring Nicolas Cage as a man named Rob, opens with one man’s idea of an ideal life: isolated, routine, divorced from the facades of everyday life among others. He lives in middle-of-nowhere Oregon, out in the woods, off the grid but for a man named Amir (Alex Wolff), a buyer who’s occasional visits are Rob’s only contact with civilization — if Amir, with his slick hair, bright yellow whip, and blistering air of overcompensation is what you’d call civilization. Amir is something of a sentient vibe-killer. Whereas Rob’s life, as depicted by Sarnoski and sensitively, maybe preeningly lensed by cinematographer Patrick Scola, is a soft, solitary vibe, the environs of a man who’s at one with his surroundings, who takes care in even his minor gestures and pride in the consummate craft he wields to accomplish even the most ordinary things.
Rob lives with his beloved truffle pig, who is no mere pet and amounts to far more than the labor she so lovingly offers. But it helps that she’s good at what she does, prized by a buyer like Amir for having the kind of nose for truffles on which he can snivelingly build his career. For Rob, it’s bigger than the work, of course. The man and his pig adore each other. She’s maybe the only living thing he hasn’t left behind — and it’s clear from the start, without it needing to be said, that Rob’s is a life that’s seen tragedy.
This being the movie that it is, only more tragedy awaits. The source of those memorable, terrifying squeals is this: A pair of meth addicts arrive in the night, beat Rob with a metal bat, steal his pig, and — well, then the movie happens. Thus Pig morphs into a movie about a man on a mission. But its interest in the world of Rob’s apparent past is of more than passing interest. Because a character played by Nicolas Cage is, even in the most dire circumstances and the most worthless movie, usually of more than passing interest. He’s that consistently disconcerting, enjoyable when committing to the most deadening bit — admirable, if not enviable, for the sheer, exhausting will of his commitment.
Rob is in some ways a character form-fitted to an idea we have of Cage, but only in some ways, and only at this stage of his career. The man of Con Air is not the man we see here, mountain-gruff, with a voice so choked of air at times it’s as if that curtain of a beard on his face were some self-imposed muffle. This isn’t the Cage prone to blown-gasket rage — not at first — but rather, per the Cage of late, a man whose rage has been plastered over with incredible melancholy. Rob is a man so disconnected from life that when he hops into his unused truck to rescue his pig, it quits almost as soon as he gets it going. He’s been off the grid for so long, a decade and a half, that when he shambles into a diner he must have frequented in times past and asks for the owner, an old friend, he learns she’s been dead for ten years.
But the rage does come, in its own way, and with it, some of the gory, dazzling mania that’s made the actor so singular. The meme of Nicolas Cage paints something of a Pacino-esque arc into readily consumable anger, memes in the making that we’ve somehow come to expect from an actor who’s actually always shown a distinctive range, from the light goofiness of Moonstruck to the utter internal wasteland of Leaving Las Vegas, in which we saw just how far the actor could receded from the blood-thriving humanity that makes a person a person into unknowing hollowness, a vacuum of the spirit with seemingly no bottom. What’s true of the best of these roles, whether recent or old, but harder to meme than the crazy stuff, is the sadness of which Pig knowingly avails itself. It’s a sadness whose glints of the unpredictable are perfect for a movie like this, in which we’re pushed to wonder just how far this character will go. Thanks to Cage, and the pained stiffness in his body (which takes more than one beating), the hare-trigger outrage, the utter tumultuous mess of the man, that question eventually occasions another, more urgent inquiry: Who, exactly, is this man?
As it turns out, Pig has an answer for that, and the answer arrives, in part, by way of Wolff’s Amir, who’s something of a foil for Rob, all uneasy confidence and dash where Cage’s character is largely but a simmer. Wolff, memorable as the terrified son of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, here comes off as a greasy try-hard, with his flashy car, tacky suit, all of it overcompensation, all of it so apparently a matter of social costuming. Amir is the kind of man to rev himself up in the mirror, alone, practicing the pitch he’ll inflict on vendors with the fervor of someone whose biggest hurdle isn’t the people he needs on his side, but the man in the mirror.
Amir and Rob become an unhappy couple, with the former stepping in — not exactly willingly — to help the latter. Because at the end of the day this is a business, and a lost pig spells trouble for them both. And so Pig descends, somewhat subversively, into an unexpected underground that, aside from Cage, is the best thing about the movie. It’s a pivot largely undermined by the movie’s intentions, however. The loneliness of both of these men is immediately transparent — so much so that when the movie reaches for richness on that front, it strains, it gets obvious. Questions get asked, meaningful monologues doled out, all of it with the film’s final scenes already in mind, all of it with a naked sense of emotional architecture that deepens the proceedings only barely. It risks getting in the actors’ way.
At some point, Pig begins to feel like too much of a posture atop an otherwise solid, motivating, intriguing core of a movie. Somehow, for all the care taken in Pig’s aesthetic moods, with everything here, from set design to music to color grading and physical texture as artisanally articulated and preened as a prize-winning chef’s once-in-a-lifetime meal — somehow, what often comes across most clearly are the contrivances of the script. Good moments abut clumsier ones; the movie succumbs to the rhythms of steadily doled-out backstories and sympathies. But it doesn’t need to. A great many of the details — the objects and interactions in themselves, from the color of Amir’ car to the waste of Rod’s clothing to the way a room full of people reacts to mere mention of Rob’s full name — already speak clearly.
Predictably, we cannot rely on our first impressions of these men. That’s not a flaw; it’s a premise. The flaw sneaks in with the constant signalling toward something more significant, a problem that arises almost as soon as Pig pivots to something like a road movie dynamic, one of those odd couple affairs in which any initial differences between these two men will dissolve once proximity forces them into richer understandings of each other.
But more interesting by a longshot is Pig’s fantasy of a grim Portland underworld — one it accesses through the world of foodies and the high-class nothingness so present in many food scenes, all of it ripe for ribbing of sort that this movie happily indulges. There’s the surface, the world in which small plates of high-priced but indescribable meals and local wines and critical snobbery disguised as taste rules the lives of restaurant workers who dare to have individual imagination and ambition. This is the world Rob excoriates: “Every day,” he warns one man, “you’ll wake up and there’ll be less of you.” Is this why Rob fled to the forest? Or is it the other part that drove him away: the underworld beneath that facade, with its overtones of Fight Club brutality, its secret thoroughfare leading to worlds of the past, its criminal poaching and stylishly dismal lack of light?
Either way, the world into which Rob is unwillingly forced to return is the stuff that makes Pig worth watching. The movie is both laudibly earnest and, conversely, slightly hollow for feeling so overly limited to its strict plans, its deck of emotional cards splayed plainly before the viewer with a warying sense of one-to-one screenplay interventions, with this mattering because, later, that. This is a film whose greatest surprises wind up being some of the throwaway moments that exceed the grand scheme, the unpredictable qualities that the actors — and not just Cage, but rather the extended cast — bring to bear on the material. Cage stealing a guy’s bike with a roar. The look on an ex-friend, now-foe’s face when he allows an underground fight to go on for too long. The base, seething desire to see someone getting what they ostensibly, for reasons the movie wisely doesn’t elaborate on, deserve.
This is the stuff to look out for. The rest, despite being moving, feels limited by design, and not always as wisely. Comparisons already being made between Pig and John Wick, and the math checks out. A man is drawn out of his solitude by violent loss and, through him, a world just beneath the surface of our own is revealed, a whole web of violence and intrigue that nevertheless points back to the man’s own loneliness gets relieved of his dust covers and exposed for our sake. Tonally, Pig takes that loneliness more seriously — but that doesn’t mean the movie itself should be taken more seriously. It’s a good-looking, well-acted movie with a solid kicker. As for the odyssey of emotional nuance that its style and portent seem to promise, it digs beneath the surface, but to a shallower depth than it seems to think.