Written and directed by Michael Sarnoski
Practitioners of the dark culinary arts, like students and bachelors of all ages, will tell you that the best meal is sometimes the only meal available to you, as your lack of foresight leaves you stranded one evening, staring into the abyss that is your sparsely populated fridge. Inside, a mish-mash of ingredients are holding on past their best-by dates, laid out on the shelves like shipwrecked sailors washed ashore on the beach. Almost out of pity, you gather them up and make something out of it.
The result is tangy mustard coating the blubber of instant noodles, a rubbery stem of broccoli adding some dubious texture and roughage to the gelatinous mess it otherwise would have been. It’s interesting, it’s edible, and you go on living for another day.
Pig, with its hodgepodge of elements, some interesting and others not, is like that floundering, desperate meal. There’s a definite vision behind Sarnoski’s story of a man who goes searching for a stolen truffle pig, unfortunately that vision feels cooked up in the same amount of time it takes to make those instant noodles, and floating in the middle of this Phở of folly is Nicolas Cage, who delivers something far-flung from what we’ve come to expect from him, a performance sadly also wasted on a character unrealized.
Cage is Rob, a man who lives deep in the Oregon woods and deep beneath the coat of dirt and grime he’s accumulated the time he’s been there. Catatonic, he grunts out a few spare words for his pig, which he summons with a whistle, and his silence cannot even be broken when Amir, played by Alex Wolff with upstart enthusiasm, comes to collect the truffles he and his pig unearth.
Shots of Cage embedded in nature, him sniffing with adoration the earth’s bounty, and the entranced takes of him preparing his meals suggest to us there’s a hidden sensibility to this gruff man, and sure enough, it’s hinted early on he’s here because of a troubled past, as he one night slips a cassette tape into a music player, listens only long enough for us to hear a woman’s voice saying his name, and then shuts it off with a pained quickness. Why this message was recorded on 40-year old technology, who knows, but demons keep him in this wilderness.
The pig then is part pet, companion and business partner, so it’s understandable Rob would go to great lengths to get it back after his shack is invaded one night and the pig abducted. When I was watching the early minutes, where most of the sounds heard were the pig’s grunts, snorts and squeals, I thought to myself how I hoped I wouldn’t have to listen to it for much longer. But once the chase was on, and Cage and company began to speak the lines prepared for them by Sarnoski, I wished for the pig to come back.
Because as Cage makes his way to Portland, it’s made clear Sarnoski doesn’t just have an affinity for the supposed wholesome nobility of nature, he has a Boomer-esque distaste for the city and what it represents, with its modernity, fast living people who care about material possessions. The culinary scene is a stand-in for all of modern society’s nonsense, as we learn Rob was once the talk of the town, and he spurned it all to go live in the woods.
Sarnoski pokes hole at fancy dining, and has pretenders in chic dining rooms throw about words like “deconstructed” to signify pretentiousness, because in Rob’s eye, things are just fine when they come out the ground, and the same goes for people too: in a monologue that reads like the fictional discussions you dream up in the shower, he lays into a chef at one of these sought-after places, telling him how the industry rat race and its buzzwords hide people’s true wants and desires from them. David Knell, cast as the chef and object of this polemic, is made to sit blubbering, defeated and awed at the knowledge bomb Sarnoski wants this to be.
The injection of this polemic is strange too, as Cage’s arrival in Portland establishes him as some John Wick-like figure, a boogeyman whose name stops people in their tracks, and Rob reveals precious few details about his past to Amir, as they make their way into the underbelly of Portland’s restaurant scene, a rabbit hole descent that comes to an early conclusion when they enter an underground hideout where the wait staff of the city beat the snot out of each other for money. Part Fight Club, part stress relief, but wholly out of left field, and while it’s a wild scene in itself, it’s completely isolated from the rest of the film in terms of narrative and tone, like an unpeeled banana suddenly poking out of your lasagna.
Which brings us to Nicolas Cage, who goes against the grain of his work this past decade, except perhaps his role in David Gordon Green’s Joe from 2013. Gone are the crazy eyes, howling line deliveries, and jerky mannerisms, and in their place, he lights a fire deep within his eyes and lets the rest of his face settle into the deep grooves of someone who hasn’t smiled for years. His voice rests at a similar coma-like level, never rising above an exasperated growl, and his body carries forth like a dead man who must learn to use it again. For all of his memefication, Nicolas Cage can do what he wants as an actor, it’s just not always his performance fits with the rest of the movie.
This particular performance wasted on Rob, though, whose story is undercooked and given up on in favour of Amir’s more emotive tale involving a strained father-son relationship. Sarnoski doesn’t see it through, even if he wants you to believe he has, making for an underwhelming conclusion that is nonetheless predictable.
If food, and its potential as an emotional touchstone, is something that appeals to you, there’s perhaps a reason for you to watch Pig, which does include scenes of lavish cooking and characters shaped by meals shared. Or you could watch, or most likely rewatch Ratatouille, which accomplishes more in terms of food-driven storytelling in that one scene with Peter O’Toole’s Anton Ego than the entirety of Sarnoski’s oinker of a movie.