“My reputation is very important. People talk.” – Amir
No matter your expectations going into Nicolas Cage’s remarkable new movie “Pig,” one will find it merits almost none of the likely assumed comparisons. No mere “John Wick”/Liam Neeson movie clone—a la this year’s “Nobody” or “Riders of Justice”—is to be found here; no brutal “Death Wish” / ”Rambo” bloodfest mash-up rooted in troublesome military sins. No. “Pig” is a peculiarly benevolent film, staggering with such ruminative intensity that it simultaneously, somehow, exudes pure tenderness.
Another surface comparison one might make is to some films authored by Nicolas Winding Refn (a fellow h-less Nicolas); specifically, I’ve seen several comparisons to “Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling—a correlation warranted for a few reasons: sharing a one word pulp title, an uncharacteristically infused blend of genre influences, and marketing campaigns around a reputable star sure to leave many casuals flipping off the Rotten Tomatoes score. A perhaps less obvious but more acute cinematic resemblance—not in terms of on screen content but assured strangeness—would be “Only God Forgives.” The reason “Pig” looks to find an audience where ‘OGF’ failed, the anomaly that is Cage’s abnormal presence carries the film like a weathered weird movie outlaw not dissimilarly to Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven,” for the modern indie crowd.
A humanistically humbling but sordid aesthetic exercise, “Pig” is a kind of fearlessly unfeigned Neo-Western in the guise of a modern film bro’s regular Saturday night out—but “Mandy” or “Wrath of Man” this is not. Closer to a mature Jeff Nichols movie meshed with the darker side of Jim Jarmusch’s oddball Americana odysseys, Cage plays a sedate wilderness luddite named Rob, whose only living companion is his trusty truffle pig. The only social interaction he gets is with his restaurant industry contact Amir (Alex Wolff), driving up in his shiny Camaro and a slick suit on Thursday’s to trade. One night, a group of unknown thugs bust open Rob’s front door, knock out the fungi hunter, and steal his prized pet.
Knowing she had to be taken for her market value, Rob treks into town to track down the nearest landline, calling Amir up to assist in recovering his animal. He asks to be driven to the city, Portland, and a transfixing dissolve montage carries Rob into the lightbulb jungle with world weary eyes. After making just one stop, Amir realizes that Rob used to be hot shit, recognizing his contact as a well-known figure, one someone in their line of work doesn’t want to fuck with. His own father a hot shot in the faddy fine dining business, Rob’s secretive underworld connections loosens the exhibitionist rich kid’s collar. To say more would ruin the film.
Part of “Pig’s” magic is in the unexpected way it escalates its deviceful creativity. For fear of saying too much, I’ll just remark how I never envisioned a movie set in the pretentious foodie world could extrapolate such thoughtful ideas into a framework like this. Each subsequent encounter solemnly surges in expository revelation without ever over-explaining. The voiceover transition to, and subsequent restaurant scene that follows—led into by, what should be, the simple act of reading specials off the menu—is hybridized in a fashion unlike quite anything I’ve seen at the movies in some while, featuring the type of dialog one can rewind and listen over and over, and hear something slightly different each time. “This is the kind of cooking you like?” Cage’s character asks the head chef; even though he knows the answer, the words ring full of staid, heartbroken sincerity, and his subsequent advice hits like an emotional hurricane.
Not to dismiss the singular strengths of their own talents, but frankly, “Pig” would never have worked as it does at present with an actor like Gosling or Mads Mikkelsen, despite the surface similarities their collaborations with a certain Danish auteur share with director Michael Sarnoski’s tremendous debut film —“Pig” being broken up into chapters much like “Valhalla Rising.” The marketing campaign might have you thinking Rob is chest pumping “Wanna fight?” but in the same way that Refn’s “Eastern” was almost predeterminedly judged for its masochistic inversion of what constitutes a revenge film stateside, and the way in which cinema allows us to express that (concurrently, praise “The Neon Demon” received is given leeway for its—for lack of a better cinematic broad stroke—De Palma/Lynchian elements, and as such people more freely forgive its transgressive/disturbing aspects) Cage’s casting puts the audiences’ acceptance of the strange and their subsequent guard against it down. Wisely, “Pig” takes its time, breathing like one of Rob’s breathing exercises, and the result is a minor miracle of moviemaking.
“Pig” opens in select theaters July 16