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Like every creative business, the world of fine dining is a mélange of art and commerce, love and ambition. For Rob, the profoundly scruffy hermit at the center of Pig, it’s a cutthroat industry that he put in the rearview mirror 15 years ago. Subsisting as a hunter of prized truffles in the backwoods of Oregon, he hasn’t entirely severed the cord to Portland’s high-end restaurant scene. But when it comes to human interaction and enterprise, everything about him says “I don’t give a damn” — until someone steals his adored truffle-hunting pig, and, like the world’s scraggliest action hero, he sets out to find her.
There’s an undeniable WTF factor to the idea of Nicolas Cage, American movies’ most devotedly erratic wild man, rasping “I want my pig.” First-time feature writer-director Michael Sarnoski, working from a story he wrote with producer Vanessa Block, lets the underlying comic dissonance register without turning his drama into a joke. Pig isn’t the gripping mystery Sarnoski might have intended, but as a crawl through the underbelly of a hipster city’s glamorous foodie culture, it’s a gutsy narrative recipe, even if the final dish is less than the sum of its ingredients. Through it all, Cage plays the enigmatic central character at the perfect simmering temperature, and without a shred of ham.
It’s nine minutes into the film before Rob speaks: a few muttered words to his porcine partner, a devoted creature with a tail-wagging, puppy-like demeanor — and one who’s blessedly never reduced to cute animal reaction shots. The only regular visitor to Rob’s remote cabin is Amir (Alex Wolff), an ambitious up-and-comer who buys the precious fungi from him, in turn selling them to chefs in the city. The always compelling Wolff offers an arresting contrast to Cage’s seething stillness, deftly signaling the self-doubt beneath Amir’s fidgety snark. In the old-growth forest, with its mystical, edge-of-civilization serenity (captured in painterly strokes by DP Pat Scola), the young man’s garish yellow sports car might as well be a flying saucer.
Their nonexistent rapport notwithstanding, it’s Amir’s help that Rob enlists after the pig is abducted in a violent nighttime break-in — and after Rob’s rackety old truck dies before he can get to the city, where he’s sure he’ll find the culprit. Once his protagonist is away from his rudimentary lair, Sarnoski’s screenplay takes him on a tragicomic descent into hell, one that revolves around high-stakes matters of money and status, truffle poaching, the purveying of comestibles, and the perceived golden-goose value of a pig.
At their darkest and most grungy, the stops along this passage through Hades (culminating in a visit to a restaurant called Eurydice) can’t quite shake off the feel of screenwriterly indulgences, notably in a pummeling visit to a subterranean fight club for restaurant workers, run by some kind of hotshot named Edgar (Darius Pierce). The sequence leaves Cage’s searcher even more beaten and bloodied than he already was from the kidnappers, but this time in a way that perhaps satisfies some deep-seated need or quells a traumatic grief. “You don’t even exist anymore,” Edgar tells him, but Rob’s beating has made clear to the audience — and to Amir — just how much of a contender Rob once was, and how much of a legend among Portland’s culinary cognoscenti.
As Amir helps Rob gain entry to top-notch eateries in search of the perpetrator, it’s telling that he’s less embarrassed about Rob’s unkempt mountain-man appearance than he is about stepping into territory controlled by his father (Adam Arkin). It’s the old man’s career as “king of rare foods” that Amir emulates, but they’re competitors, not partners or allies. When talking about his father, this rich kid can’t quite finish his sentences. Wolff wields those uncomfortable fadeouts with emotion-packed nuance, a subtlety he also brings to scenes of gothic horror at the family mansion.
Rob’s relentless search crescendos when, in filthy clothes and with his face caked in dried blood, he sits down to lunch at one of the city’s hottest white-tablecloth spots. Wolff makes Amir’s behind-the-scenes finagling for the reservation a finely tuned balancing act of assertion and self-erasure. (Earlier, he delivers the film’s best throwaway line, when Amir tells a restaurant employee who’s suspiciously eyeing the longhaired and fashion-backward Rob, “He’s Buddhist.”)
There’s something perversely satisfying (and a little bit Portlandia) about watching Rob among the lunchtime see-and-be-seen at Eurydice, a citadel of molecular gastronomy. At the center of the sunlit room, Cage is a vortex of charged expectancy. Still, the scene’s jabs at trendiness — the worship of locally sourced ingredients, the sous vide and foam and smoke — feel anything but fresh, There’s one line that’s a crucial exception, but most of Rob’s words of warning and wisdom to the eatery’s careerist chef (David Knell), a nervous mass of faux smiles, feel like well-chewed and reconstituted morsels, less deep than meets the eye.
As to what’s pure and true, Sarnoski stacks the deck. He divides the film into three sections, each named for a recipe or a meal, the first of which, “Rustic Mushroom Tart,” establishes the simple, unrefined integrity of Rob and his cooking (which he shares with his beloved pig). Eventually it’s revealed that the restaurant that put him on the foodie map was named Hestia, after the Greek goddess of the hearth. So there’s that.
Whatever the screenplay’s stumbles, Cage’s contained performance embraces his character’s losses and his turning away from the world without the slightest play for sympathy. Whatever Rob’s emotional damage, the way he carries himself suggests a man who knows his worth and his talent. It’s too bad that, in a climactic moment, Sarnoski’s otherwise solid direction leaves his star adrift.
But the final scene delivers unexpected shivers of longing and connection. A disembodied voice from the past (Cassandra Violet) fills in a piece or two of Rob’s story. This happens in a way that spells out nothing. There’s no recipe for it, just the forest and its cleansing, complicating light.
Production companies: Ai Film, Endeavor Content, Pulse Films, Blockbox Entertainment, Valparaiso Pictures, Saturn Films
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin, Cassandra Violet, Darius Pierce, David Knell
Director-screenwriter: Michael Sarnoski
Story by Vanessa Block, Michael Sarnoski
Producers: Nicolas Cage, Steve Tisch, David Carrico, Adam Paulsen, Dori Roth, Joseph Restaino, Dimitra Tsingou, Thomas Benski, Ben Giladi, Vanessa Block
Executive producers: Len Blavatnik, Aviv Giladi, Danny Cohen, Marisa Clifford, Tim O’Shea, Michael Sarnoski, Robert Bartner, Yara Shoemaker, Bobby Hoppey
Director of photography: Pat Scola
Production designer: Tyler Robinson
Costume designer: Jayme Hansen
Editor: Brett W. Bachman
Music: Alexis Gapsas, Phillip Klein
Casting director: Simon Max Hill
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