Who would have thought this late in the game, as the Year 2021 takes us on another Big Grizzly Mountain Ride through COVID fear and loathing, that Nicolas Cage would be in a movie called Pig, and that it would be one of his best roles ever, and possibly my favorite movie so far this year?
In Michael Sarnoski’s directorial debut about a chef who lives far off the grid, we meet Rob Feld (Cage), a disheveled hermit type washing his sole dinner plate in a mountain stream somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. We also meet his pig — a nameless but genial, orange-haired porker that helps him track down wild truffles in the forest.
These are what Rob uses to barter in exchange for canned goods, batteries and sundries from Amir (Alex Wolff), an enterprising but crabby Gen-Y type who sells the truffles for mucho bucks to restaurant suppliers in Portland and other cities. (Material things, we quickly learn, do not concern Rob Feld.)
It’s a food film, invested with the love that chefs put into every prepared meal, and it’s also a revenge flick, but not, as trailers might lead you to think, as simpleminded as the John Wick movies.
First of all, who knew that Oregon had wild truffles? Second of all, what does a “Rustic Mushroom Tart” — one of three inspiring dishes that Rob cooks (and which announce each segment of the movie) — taste like?
One of the wonders of Sarnoski’s film is that it combines many genres almost effortlessly, without pushing too hard: it’s a food film, invested with the love that chefs put into every prepared meal, and it’s also a revenge flick — but not, as trailers might lead you to think, as simpleminded as the John Wick movies.
Yes, Rob does lose his pig to nefarious thieves, and wants it back very badly; but that’s about as close to a Keanu Reeves franchise film that Pig is gonna get.
Like Wick, Rob is a man of few words. But his words tend to be meaningful, steeped in the wisdom of a fallen giant — a former great chef of the Portland restaurant scene, toppled by nameless grief and loss.
We gather that Rob was a legend of “the scene,” until he retreated to the Pacific Northwest, where he and his nameless sow live a symbiotic, mutually rewarding existence. All the trappings of fame and excellence hinted at in the rest of the movie have been replaced, in Rob, with a deep sadness only vague outlined.
On top of that, some meth heads steal his pig.
Now Rob has a mission, so he recruits Amir (Wolff, great in Hereditary, and in this role) to help him track down his pet.
If there are indulgences in Sarnoski’s script, they come from drawing an even bigger world than is required for the story. We maybe didn’t need to see another fight club scene this many years after David Fincher’s film, though such things no doubt still thrive in the Pacific Northwest underground.
So how about one in which disgruntled sous chefs and kitchen staff pay good money to beat the crap out of willing homeless people? “Your name has no value here anymore,” Rob’s former chef colleague — now running the after-hours fight club — tells him when he comes seeking info on the missing pig.
Contrast that to Amir, who’s still caught up in the aspirational rat race, still trying to please a business mogul father with his skills at finagling wild mushrooms from Rob. Amir develops a grudging respect for his new business partner, at first because he sees how much awe and respect Rob’s name commands from other chefs on the Portland scene.
Rob puts Amir’s awe into perspective by describing an all-but-certain upcoming tsunami — the “really big one” that scientists have long warned about: “People first came out here 10,000 years ago; we would’ve been under 400 feet of water. Every 200 years, we get a major earthquake right along the coast. One’s coming up. When the shockwave hits, most of the city will flatten. Every bridge will fall. There’ll be nowhere to go, even if you could. Anyone who survives that is just… waiting. Five minutes later, they’ll look up and see a wave, 10 stories high. And then all this — everyone — is all gonna be at the bottom of the ocean. Again.”
So maybe molecular gastronomy isn’t such a big deal in the larger scheme of things.
The other genre that Pig dabbles in is almost European arthouse in its philosophical approach to life and grief. Rather than nonstop gun battles and slicing swords, it’s Rob’s bedraggled appearance, his soiled gravitas, that cuts through the bullshit here.
Cage gives it his understated, world-weary, contemplative best, as in the scene (under the heading “Mom’s French Toast & Deconstructed Scallops”) in which he “deconstructs” a trendy Portland chef, pointing out that his food doesn’t actually exist, and the people who eat it aren’t real, and he isn’t real, because he doesn’t care deeply about his own cooking.
What makes Rob an interesting, trustable character is the way he channels all his experiences through sensory memories: whether it’s the taste of persimmons from a local tree of his childhood, or the palpable enjoyment on the face of every restaurant patron he’s ever served.
“We don’t get a lot of things to really care about,” Rob reminds the chef, a former employee whose original dream was to open a pub — not a place that specializes in expensive foam.
Presented with a mirror view into his own wilted soul, the guy breaks down in a puddle of tears. (Yes, putting love into your food may feel a bit Ratatouille, but in Sarnoski’s hands, the life lessons are devastatingly effective.)
What makes Rob an interesting, trustable character is the way he channels all his experiences through sensory memories: whether it’s the taste of persimmons from a local tree of his childhood, or the palpable enjoyment on the face of every restaurant patron he’s ever served, he seems to breathe the rarefied air of truth.
He’s a Zen priest, fusing fine dining with pure living, not unlike another troubled journeyman of the culinary world — Anthony Bourdain — who features in a recent documentary called Roadrunner.
It’s worth noting how easily this could’ve all ended up either as pretentious twaddle or just another overblown action flick. I mean, it does star Nic Cage, so a sudden swerve into gonzo-land would not be off-brand. Instead, the actor is soulful, restrained, reaching for depths long hidden, feared gone for good. Pig sidesteps all those excesses, and ends up being a finely concocted dish with most of its ingredients kept in admirable balance and proportion.
There are so many other things to enjoy in Pig, but it’s best to experience them on your own — whether it’s the home-sung version of Springsteen’s I’m on Fire, or the timeless wonders of a salted baguette — perhaps with a nice, shapely glass of Pinot Noir and your own love of cinema as company.