Nicolas Cage in Pig

‘Pig’ Paints a Quiet and Absurd Portrait of Grief

Approximately nine minutes into Pig, Nicolas Cage speaks his first lines of dialogue. His character, the bedraggled truffle hunter Robin, has been on screen for the entire film. But he has remained silent as he tramps through the Oregon forest, even refusing to talk when his contact Amir (Alex Wolff), who drove to Robin’s sparse cabin in yellow Lamborghini, arrived to purchase truffles. 

Robin only speaks after listening to a few seconds of audiotape. After fumbling to put a cassette into a boom box, Robin presses play and listens. He hears a guitar tuning and a woman laughing, playfully teasing an unheard lover. 

Robin hits stop on the boom box. And then he just sits. No contortions to his face. No twisting and shouting. He just sits, until his loyal pig saddles up beside him. And with remarkable warmth and calm, Robin assures us, “I’m okay.”

At that moment, it becomes clear that writer and director Michael Sarnoski has something in mind for the movie that differs from the easy comparisons suggested by its plot summary. Pig follows Robin’s journey to rescue his kidnapped truffle pig, a mission that leads him deep into the underground of Portland and forces him to face his painful past. That summary invites similarities to everything from the excellent Italian documentary The Truffle Hunters to the action series John Wick to Cage’s gonzo revenge flick Mandy

But Pig is none of those things, in the most surprising ways. As those opening minutes indicate, the movie is tender and thoughtful, willing to sit quietly in the character’s suffering and contentment.

 In the lead performance, Nicolas Cage reaches back to the time before he became the internet’s ironic favourite, back to his award-winning turn as a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas. As a broken man looking for his pig, Robin seems poised to explode in insane rage. But Cage never defaults to that mode, even when getting angry. Instead, he rests in Robin’s hurt, as palpable as the wounds he wears throughout the movie. He lets us see his cuts and bruises, even as he draws attention to his eyes, forcing us to reckon with the man as a human, not just as a collection of ticks. 

None of this is to suggest that the movie isn’t weird. The only comparison that sticks to Pig is John Wick, but not because of the lost pet similarities. In the same way that the action franchise reveals a hidden society within New York, with its own arcane rules and rituals, Pig takes Robin into the dark side of the Portland food industry. There, truffle salesmen rule like crime bosses and servers beat up chefs in a pseudo-fight club. But even as it indulges in these eccentricities, Pig never loses focus on Robin as a fully rounded person, driven by a unique worldview more than he is by any sort of tragedy. 

The movie pulls off this balancing act thanks to Sarnoski’s deft direction and thoughtful cinematography from Pat Scola. Sarnoski moves his camera sparingly, letting the characters soak up the rich earth tones and natural lighting employed by Scola. We examine every crevice in Robin’s face, especially contrasted to the clean façade constructed by Amir. The sound design pulls in ambient noises, making the space feel rich and real, even at its most outlandish moments, making room for Philip Klein’s gentle score. 

This play of absurdity and solemnity underscores the story’s themes of loss and identity. In his previous life, before a tragedy that never gets fully explained, Robin played along in the world of celebrity chefs and flashy restauranteurs, the same world in which Amir so desperately wants to join. But he left that behind, becoming a type of Thoreauvian hero, complete with wise nuggets about society. 

Although his character is always in danger of becoming a stereotypical holy fool, Pig never lets Robin be anything other than human. With its careful combination of the bizarre and the mundane, Pig captures the stultification of grief and the quiet stillness of the peace that follows. 

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