Pig, Nicolas Cage’s new film, could have been a trainwreck. Instead, it’s a masterpiece

Pig, Nicolas Cage’s new film, could have been a trainwreck. Instead, it’s a masterpiece
The story of Robin Feld, a recluse desperately searching for his stolen truffle pig, should be too weird to work. But ‘Pig’ is strong film with smart things to say about life, art, and what it means to care, writes Clémence Michallon

Pig, a new film starring Nicolas Cage as the reclusive owner of a stolen truffle pig, should have been an unmitigated disaster. Robin Feld, Cage’s character, is a former chef who now lives deep in the Oregonian woods. He showers rarely and forages often, in the company of his beloved truffle-hunting pig. His only visitor is Amir (a deft Alex Wolff), a young truffle salesman who can’t break through Rob’s tough exterior.

So far, so pastoral, except the pig (who’s really a sow, but I guess Sow didn’t have the same zinger for a title) gets abducted one fateful night. The event moves Rob to break his exile and search for his missing pet, asking in the soulful tone of a philosopher pondering the meaning of life: “Who has my pig?”

It shouldn’t work, but it does. It really, really does. Cage’s acting is understated and powerful. He may well nab his first Oscar nomination since 2003 (for Adaptation) for his performance. Pig, director Michael Sarnoski’s first feature film, is a strong film with smart things to say about life, art, and what it means to care.

Clocking in at a taut 92 minutes, It has a definite indie feel, with brush strokes of dark comedy and existentialism, but it never loses sight of its premise. Everything we learn about Rob and Amir, we learn because of the pig.

You might go into Pig expecting one of two things: a pretentious movie claiming to be about a pig but gesturing at a variety of wider concepts, or a movie quite literally about a pig. The former would come off as grandiloquent; the latter would lack substance. Pig works because it dares to be both. It’s a fable as well as a movie about a pig. Rob’s attachment to his animal reflects the pure, unconditional love humans feel for their pets. It is also an allegory for something greater. It’s big and it’s small. It’s complicated, and it’s devastatingly simple.

Trailer for Pig (2021)

Rob’s decision to leave restaurant stardom behind – and he was, truly, a rock star of haute cuisine – is the movie’s most intriguing subplot. While having lunch at Portland’s hottest new eatery, Rob has a crushing conversation with the chef (a hilariously anguished David Knell), a former employee of Rob’s. He’s the kind of man Rob used to be, and might still have been if he hadn’t thrown it all away to go live in the woods. During the exchange, Rob dispenses cutting wisdom about careers and fame. It’s not about the outside markers of success, he tells an increasingly devastated Knell. It’s not about critics or showy menus. “You live your life for them, and they don’t even see you,” he tells him. “You don’t even see yourself.”

The exchange is as much about Rob as it seems to be about Cage himself. To Rob, the only thing that belongs to a chef – or to anyone in a creative career, including, say, a Hollywood actor – is passion. It’s the intimate link between someone and their craft.

Cage has acknowledged the parallels between Rob’s career and his own. It’s been years since he starred in blockbusters like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or National Treasure, both released by Disney in 2010 and 2004, respectively.

“I do feel that I’ve gone into my own wilderness and that I’ve left the small town that is Hollywood,” the actor toldVariety. “I don’t know exactly why Rob left his stardom. It’s never fully explained, and I like that about the movie. But as for me, I don’t know if I’d want to go back. I don’t know if I’d want to go and make another Disney movie. It would be terrifying. It’s a whole different climate. There’s a lot of fear there.”

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What Cage appears to be telling us is that, much like Rob’s journey away from chef superstardom, he’s abandoned the kind of cartoonish silliness he was used to in Hollywood. He’s leaning back into his knack for the absurd – think Face/Off, Red Rock West) – and for bringing improbable roles to life. The Nicolas Cage in Pig is the same one who pulled off lines like “I lost my hand! I lost my bride!” in the magnificent Moonstruck in 1987.

In Pig, Rob has stripped down his activities as a chef to the bare minimum: if he’s not in it for the glamour, for the glitz and glam of fine dining, or for literally any social retribution for his work, then what’s left? The answer is in the opening scenes of the movie, in which Rob cooks for himself and meditatively enjoys a mushroom tart in the trusted company of – you guessed it – his pig. He’s no longer a chef; he’s barely a cook.

Is he happy? The film gives no easy answer. Rob’s existence in the woods seems peaceful, safe from the annoyances of modern life, but Pig doesn’t make it look all that attractive. Rob’s demeanour is calm, but not serene. His exile seems avoidant rather than stoic. Rob has run away from the noise and pains of his city existence, but he hasn’t found fulfillment.

At the same time, Rob’s old stomping grounds aren’t particularly appealing, and one certainly doesn’t come out of the movie with the impression that Rob would be happier if he returned to Portland. The people he encounters are selfish, clueless, at times cruel. By contrast, Rob might be a strange character who cares way too much about his pig, but he’s got something to live for. Not everyone in the film can say the same.

“We don’t get a lot of things to really care about,” Rob says at one point. The sentence summarises the film’s essence to such an extent that it has become its tagline, uttered in the trailer and written across its poster. Rob’s focus on his pig is a hyper-focused form of caring. It makes him eccentric, and it comes at a social cost – but the judgment of others remains immaterial to him.

Rob’s behaviour wouldn’t make a tonne of sense in real life, but in the context of the film, it works. It’s a vehicle for a meditation on the costs of letting other people in – and conversely, the costs of shutting them out. Pig is a smart, self-aware movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome. I didn’t have it pegged as the movie of the summer, but it simply is.

‘Pig’ is out in the US and will be released in the UK on 20 August 2021