Nicolas Cage rises from the muck in ‘Pig’ 

click to enlarge Nicolas Cage (right) and a furry friend.

Courtesy NEON

Nicolas Cage (right) and a furry friend.

Despite signaling revenge-film potential akin to John Wick or The Rover, Michael Sarnoski's Pig shows less concern for avenging the red-haired, truffle-hunting animal of its title than for exploring the tensions she represents: the closely twinned gulf and bond between labor and refinement. Opening on exiled Portland chef Robin Feld (Nicolas Cage) peacefully hunting for these buried fungi in Oregon's dark, misty woods with his well-bred companion, the film unfolds — even after the creature is violently stolen — in a fashion only somewhat less quietly than it began. These early rhythms of digging and searching, of getting one's hands (and nose) dirty in pursuing something precious, permeate the film's ambling trajectory. Pig's narrative path is determined not just by a trail of evidence, leading from a crime scene to a crime boss — but by the movements of local food-distribution networks beginning at the forest floor. A nearly whispering, dirt-to-table-parable-cum-muted-thriller, the film offers up a distinct, at times ragged showcase not just for Cage but for Sarnoski: revealing, with certain smudges on this signature unwittingly left intact, a new directorial voice.

Within Pig's parabolic world, voice, taste, reputation, and identity wind up closely intertwined — in food just as in art. As both audience surrogate and a sort of Chiron figure ferrying Feld from the country to the city and around its gastronomic underbelly, Amir, played by Hereditary's Alex Wolff as a kind of fresh prince of Portland's culinary scene and Feld's chief truffle client, exemplifies these ideas best in their modern context. For Amir, who's struggling to establish a foothold in the space of this overflowing space, these notions are defined not just through some personal expression's eventually culminating in being "found" and recognized by others but by steady self-schooling. In Pig, one keeps an eye on past work — work like Feld's — not only to learn or grow, but to excel in order to elevate oneself. For Amir, whose delicate curls rest on broad cheekbones perfectly, and whose elegant jackets always seem tailored to fit, presentation as a path to reputation — signaled finally in his try-hard sports car — is nearly everything. By positioning Amir as a foil to Feld, who's more removed from such taste cycles and society at large, Sarnoski posits that approaches to career paths are generationally split, with young men like Wolff hooked on hype, trends, and affirmation — thus success becomes an outcome that's contingent on the recognition of onlookers, not merely about craft. "Name means something," characters say — and indeed it does; it means something because of spectators like both them and us.

While Sarnoski himself appears guaranteed to make a name for himself here as a director, theater-goers will of course know Cage's name first. Playing Feld as a grizzled, just-slouched vagabond in silvery beard and grubby, fingerless gloves, the role for Cage is both pointedly unglamorous (he declines to wash for days on end) and determinedly small in affect, with the veteran actor playing down beats at nearly every available point. For Cage's spectators, the message is clear: going big with a performance, as he often has in recent films, is a choice and not an accident. Basically: "rest assured, he's doing something when he goes big — because he can do this other thing."

The film's message about itself, with regards to Cage, feels at times to be double-underlined by comparison. By casting Cage, an actor widely associated (however wrongly) in recent years with an "unhinged" performance style, handing him a role with plum potential for grandiosity, for pounding on keys — only to surprise by playing most notes softly — Sarnoski's not just signaling control as a freshly visible director. He's also signposting his own good (and restrained) taste to a field of viewers who are effectively new acquaintances — we might as well have just met him at a party.

Pig's show of sophistication doesn't end with Cage, however. The film is wreathed throughout in a kind of bespoke air that stretches from the luddite setting in which it opens to the tilt-nosed, day-drinking connoisseurs who comprise its milieu. With its carefully modeled colors, sculpted shadows, and shallow-focused lens — which brings out the tactile details of a well-made quiche as much as the bruises on Feld's face — Pig treats its modern display of craft as the road to authentic — and accomplished expression.

But for all the film brings in technique and imagination, it lacks strikingly in self-awareness. While its small, surreal exposé of class, taste, performance, and distant, earthy labor is welcome, albeit often misdirected (surely there's some real money in the truffle business), Pig still sees culinary achievement in conservative terms. Jonathan Gold and Anthony Bourdain are gone now, but it's strange to see a movie made as recently as this ignore what seem like their obvious lessons. While paying lip-service to ideas of authenticity, taste, sincerity, and craft — in art as much as at the table — it nonetheless couches its notions of what constitutes great dining, or even a good meal, in eurocentric and male-centered terms. (Women exist in Pig, it should be noted, mostly as absent, saintly specters, and the victimized pig's gender feels not-incidental in this respect). While verbally noting Portland's indigenous history, and having Feld muse in Herzog-like monologues on what ultimately passes and endures, Sarnoski still seems to think the best food happens in spaces filled with white tablecloths, crowded with and manned by people of the same hue.

The film likewise struggles to show what distinguished Feld's cooking in his prime as a local bigwig chef: something that would sit better had the film stayed meditative and exploratory, not turned as didactic by the end. Was Feld a traditionalist, an innovator, a genius at sourcing — or a chef who succeeded because he was sincerely passionate and emotionally invested? This last part seems the vague suggestion, but what the trait unlocks remains a mystery for not being ultimately understood. For all his ambition, there's a world of taste, thought, and consideration that Sarnoski seems at once entranced by and unable to effectively grasp at or understand. In revealing this, accidentally or not, Pig at least confirms that it's sincere.

Film Details Pig

A truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregonian wilderness must return to his past in Portland in search of his beloved foraging pig after she is kidnapped.

Drama and Thriller

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Pig

R 1 hr 32 min

Afternoon

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