Grief debilitates, but it can also renew. In Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, Rob (Nicolas Cage) is an outcast of the city living in the woods with his truffle pig. His sadness seems obvious, but don’t let his ragged hair and alcoholic Santa Claus-look distract from the bond between Rob and his pig. They hunt, sleep, and eat together, and their friendship is all Rob wants out of life. Trailers don’t capture the full emotional weight of Pig, painting it as a cookie-cutter revenge thriller: like the similarly Cage-starring Mandy but without the visual glam. Pig can be thrilling, but it is also moving, a recluse’s journey to retrieve the animal he loves by revisiting his troubled past. It is about allowing pain the time it needs to transform, guided by a subtler than ever performance from Cage.
Beginning in a lush forest, Pig has all the aesthetic qualities of a medieval period piece. That ancient feeling is complemented by Rob’s woodsy appearance, suggesting he and his truffle-hunting pig have been here a long while. When a Rolex-sporting twenty-something arrives to break the period-piece illusion, it becomes clear that Rob isn’t a poetic man of the woods, but a truffle farmer. Amir (Alex Wolff), a very out of place restaurateur, buys the truffles Rob’s pig digs up, but Rob doesn’t like Amir’s stench: industrial, corporate, plastic. Amir represents the food industry that Rob has an uneasy relationship with, and that antagonism is only exacerbated when Rob’s pig is stolen.
The setting deftly switches from pine-riddled woods to the hip-industrial-hellscape of Portland, Oregon, where Rob is determined to find his pig using Amir’s connections. Menacing skyscrapers tower over the city, and the common mom-and-pop stores lack their usual charm. This is Portland through the lens of restaurant empires, introduced in the dark of night when everything looks a little more dangerous. Reflecting Rob’s attitude, the city remains bathed in gray and black light, which sparks a question about Amir: What does he see in this place? He knows local chefs and owners but doesn’t appear friendly with them, using his relationships for favors and last-minute reservations. These social climbers are part of the reason Rob left for the woods, and his presence in Portland doesn’t so much pull back the curtain as it does increase the resolution in which the darkness is seen.
Despite being out of place in Portland, Rob has a knowledge of the city you’d only expect from someone who built it. He and Amir journey through hidden doorways into underground fight clubs, and secure reservations at the most exclusive place in town. It seems clear that Rob has not always been a truffle farmer, and the slow assembly of his past is where Pig’s writing shines. A tense conversation in Amir’s apartment quietly expands into a revelation, the camera pulling closer to Rob with each cut between the two actors as Rob slowly lets Amir into his past to offer him advice. Cage’s delivery is tender and slow to anger, as he carefully paces out lines that could just as easily be performed as screams. Later, when Rob lectures the head chef of a massively popular restaurant, it’s once again clear he’s not rambling for his own ego. Rob has abandoned others and been abandoned himself, so his words are cautionary rather than condescending. Practically everyone he and Amir talk to has been hurt or left behind by Rob, but it’s a muted hurt, long sanded-over by time or otherwise dulled during Rob’s long absence. Cage is a versatile and talented actor, but he’s long lacked an ability to carry intimate scenes with the force he brings to explosive ones. With Pig, he makes calmness his specialty.
Cage can still play the hell out of a wronged man, but the most anger is seen in Amir. Wolff screams enough for both actors, playing a sympathetic rich kid unsure of his reasons for climbing the corporate ladder. He uses cars and watches to disguise how little he knows, and Rob is the perfect counterbalance. Determined and with no one to betray, Rob’s life with his pig was simple but efficient. As he tells Amir, he loved that pig: the one thing he had to lose. This comes after he’s accused of having sex with it, so there’s some humor here, too, but Rob is talking about companionship. The response to being spit out by (and spitting at) the world is to find something that will love you unconditionally. Though the pairing seems odd, it strangely works, and Amir has much he could learn from Rob’s openly emotional relationship, even if he falls short of adopting a pig.
For Rob, the goal of grief isn’t to forget someone, but to fill the hole they left behind. His anger at the world pushes away those who aren’t relevant to his loss, and centers whomever is most to blame; there are revenge-thriller elements to Pig that stem from Rob’s unrelenting pursuit of his pig, but they lack the bloodshed typical of the genre, any violence resulting directly from Rob’s single-minded pursuit of his pig. A perfect case study is the underground fight club Rob enters upon arriving in Portland. He writes his name on a board, and a frenzy of bets are placed for or against him. Instead of fighting, he places his arms behind his back and lets the challenger beat him until the time is up. Rob “wins” this exchange and is rewarded with new information, but what does this tell the audience? We expect Cage to unleash his hulking frame on the opponent, but instead we’re shown the physical toll of Rob’s grief. He may have won the fight, but he would have died had it gone on much longer. That’s how far he’ll go for unconditional love.
Pig finds an amazing amount of depth in its simple premise thanks to the stellar writing and performances. Cage appears proud of his role, hopefully signaling a new era of subtlety in his career; Wolff is both an excellent foil and a dynamic character, a spoiled-kid cliche that could easily bore but is just as impressive as Cage. As much as the film confronts the past, it doesn’t cut corners to resolve pain neatly. Some pains are too big to be corrected, and characters must face dark realities resulting from their past actions. Rob’s life never fully returns to normal, and Amir must comprehend his dismal state of being if he is to move beyond it. But Rob tries, as does Amir by the end. If Pig has a statement on growth, it’s that hurt doesn’t just disappear, but it can scar over. The only way to let that happen is to face what created it.