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The Front Row
“Pig,” Reviewed: Nicolas Cage Is the Only Reason to Watch
As a mournful, weary hermit in search of his kidnapped truffle pig, the actor bypasses the movie’s mediocre ideas to create some extraordinary moments.
July 17, 2021
Cage conveys the sense of drinking deep of agony, as if deserving it, and the film takes full advantage of that artistic persona.Photograph by David Reamer / Courtesy NEON
is a bridge object, spanning nature and culture, rustic ways and urbane refinements. Because it’s not grown but found, a culinary gemstone demanding physical labor, venerable traditional knowledge, and amazing animals, it’s an automatic symbol and a cipher that merely awaits the application of chosen meanings. “Pig,” written and directed by Michael Sarnoski (who co-wrote the story with Vanessa Block), is, in that regard, a truffle of a movie, and its premise marks the precious fungus with a hand-wavingly wide and vague symbolism that permeates the entire story, which strains to mean so much and to matter so much that it vitiates itself into illustrative, portentous absurdity. The film is redeemed only by the dour, weary, mournful, stubborn, and wise performance of Nicolas Cage, which is not so much a star turn as the project’s sole raison d’être.
Cage plays a hermit named Robin Feld who lives in a cabin in the woods of Oregon, with his truffle pig. Robin’s isolation is nearly total—he has one client for his truffles, a slick and glib young man named Amir (Alex Wolff), who drives up in a conspicuously expensive sports car and spatters Robin with wisecracks while paying for the delicacies. But Robin’s isolation is emblazoned, from the start, with a very conspicuous single root cause: he is in mourning for a woman, whose death—never dated, never explained—has driven him out of society.
Then, shortly after Amir’s most recent visit, intruders break in, slam Robin to the floor, and steal the pig. There are obvious shades of “John Wick,” both in the uxorious grief and in the animal story. But, unlike Keanu Reeves’s vengeful hitman, Robin isn’t out for revenge, just for his pig. He’s got no one to turn to except Amir, who is persuaded to drive him to the nearby metropolis of Portland. There, what seems like Robin’s floundering and desperate long shot is revealed to be a sharply targeted hunt, because neither Portland nor the foodie scene are foreign to him: in a former life, it turns out, he was one of the city’s major and revered chefs, before heading for the woods fifteen years ago. With Amir’s help, Robin—so cut off from his former milieu that some of his former cohorts had assumed he’d died—makes his way through the city’s high-end dining scene in search of the thieves.
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The quest, however, is tinged with absurdities that function like onscreen emojis, there to proclaim what Sarnoski intends to say and nothing more. One emblematic moment, in which Robin trumpets his return, involves his absorbing of atrocious punishment in a secretive underground fight club reserved for the exploitation of the city’s restaurant workers. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Robin, already banged up by the pig thieves, spends the rest of the film scabbed and bruised and broken and smeared with his own blood, a giant fly in the overchilled vichyssoise of the inhumanly, pretentiously pristine gastronomical showcases that are the way stations of his investigation. Robin’s deep knowledge of Portland history—displaying his sense of tradition underneath the frippery—gradually but ineluctably leads to the movie’s meatball scene, the one that delivers its dose of populist demagogy in a single bite.
That scene takes place in the jewel box of Portland restaurants, a place where a reservation is a precious commodity that requires the formidable pulling of strings. At a meal of a comedically exaggerated chichi-ness, featuring turd-like lumps of emulsified scallops, “on a bed of foraged huckleberry foam,” under a dome of smoke, the stained and snaggle-toothed and blood-crusted Robin confronts the celebrated chef (David Knell), the toast of Portland, and calmly, patiently, surgically insults his cooking, his restaurant, his clientele, his fame, and—underlying it all—his commercial sellout of his erstwhile hearty and populist-cuisine dreams in favor of the frivolous acclaim of people (rich customers and pompous critics) for whom Robin has no respect and no regard. It’s as if grief has burned all worldly aspirations out of Robin, has wrenched the scales from his eyes and revealed the awful truth of the restaurant world and of the world at large. Alone in his cabin, a silent prophet of unvarnished and earthy sincerity—he’s an avatar of honest food
, and there’s no deceit in the truffle—the theft of his pig has forced him back into the world and turned him into a vocal prophet whose quiet jeremiad is the linchpin of the movie and the moment in which Sarnoski tips his own hand into overt, banal, and self-justifying message-mongering.
What about the artistry, the aesthetic imagination, the full spectrum of cinematic drama that’s missing from “Pig”? It’s a movie that tells its story with TV-commercial images of a blatantly mood-conditioning simplification, with a skipping-about drama that incarnates its key plot points without seeming to know how or whether its characters exist in between them. This plain and bland realism rests heavily, like a manhole cover, on Robin, keeping down the entire range of experience and knowledge that he bears, his memories and his agonies and his sloughed-off aspirations, which are dosed out as big reveals solely as they serve to connect the dots of the story. Which is to say that “Pig” is not a particularly bad movie in its style, its form, its tone, its conception. It’s merely a painfully ordinary one, an algorithmic movie like many others, catering to the expectations of the moderately mainstream marketplace—not a fast-food movie but ostensibly hearty fare of the kind that Robin upholds as a worthy aspiration, a pleaser of an only lightly filtered and self-selecting crowd. What’s more, the chichi chef is revealed to have been an inadequate assistant, an ostensible master building his fraudulent glory on the hollow foundation of a lack of craft, of deficient professionalism. (That’s how the mediocre mainstream has ever damned the boldly original.) Whatever kinds of creative flourishes or audaciously original concepts go into making an exceptional movie (like an exceptional restaurant) are, here, relegated to the realm of the insincere, the arch, the unredeemably artificial and artsy—and of the pretentious, false viewers and critics who seek them out and pretend to enjoy them. What’s left, however, is Cage’s trudging, punished performance. Competence is hardly the point; more or less any of the talented actors of Hollywood acclaim could bring allure and emotion to the role of Robin. But there’s one particular and peculiar aspect of the role that Cage seems to own and that he endows with the depth and burden of his own character and experience: martyrdom. Perhaps only Willem Dafoe, nearly of Cage’s generation, bears the same sense of self-torment, though Dafoe also glows with a non-militaristic martial hardness that converts affliction to energy. For Cage, the pain is the point: he conveys the sense of drinking deep of agony, as if deserving it, and Sarnoski takes full advantage of that artistic persona. The character that Cage portrays is incoherent, illustrative, and ludicrous, and yet his portrayal makes the movie. Cage turns its unreflective dramatic form and unchallenging narrative conventions into a kind of living nightmare, which bypasses the movie’s mediocre ideas and trivial plot and raises it—if only a few fleeting moments at a time—into the realm of the extraordinary. On the other hand, a director who understands such cinematic martyrdom profoundly—Paul Schrader—cast both Cage and Dafoe in the wild crime drama “Dog Eat Dog
,” from 2016, which offers Cage a spectacular climactic scene of tragicomic martyrdom and terrifying fury. Stream it instead.
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