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Food-World Drama 'Pig' Revolves Around a Surprisingly Subtle Nicolas Cage Performance

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REGAL RECLUSE Cage plays a refugee from the high-end restaurant industry in Sarnoski's compelling but uneven debut feature. - COURTESY OF NEON
  • Courtesy Of Neon
  • REGAL RECLUSE Cage plays a refugee from the high-end restaurant industry in Sarnoski's compelling but uneven debut feature.

Calais food author Rowan Jacobsen recently published an acclaimed book on truffle hunting. In a December 21 interview with Seven Days, he spoke of popular "myths" about the pursuit — such as "the truffle-seeking pig, which has not existed for about a century," Melissa Pasanen wrote. Seems dogs are the truffle hunters of choice these days.

But don't tell that to the makers of Pig, a 2021 drama set in contemporary Oregon that has won awards from numerous critics' circles. The pig in question is a truffle hunter, though the film's real focus is her human companion, played with an uncharacteristic degree of subtlety by Nicolas Cage.

Directed and scripted by Michael Sarnoski from a story he cowrote with Vanessa Block, this moody drama about food, art, love and loss is streaming on Hulu and rentable elsewhere.

The deal

Cage plays Robin Feld, a grizzled fellow who lives in a woodland cabin with his beloved truffle pig. One night, unknown assailants break in and make off with his sole companion.

Robin turns for help to Amir (Alex Wolff), the young specialty-foods supplier to whom he sells his truffles. The search leads them to Portland's opulent fine-dining scene, where Robin turns out to have a past that surprises Amir.

In search of the prized porcine, the two men scour food carts, high-end hotel bars and even a subterranean fight club where the combatants are all restaurant staff. Meanwhile, Robin grapples with memories he'd hoped to leave behind.

Will you like it?

Pig plays relentlessly with our expectations. After its restrained first 15 minutes or so, the film shifts gears and starts to suggest a pulpy revenge fantasy such as Taken or John Wick — or Mandy, in which Cage also starred.

While the forest scenes are slow-paced and down-to-earth, the Portland scenes take place in a noirish hyperreality in which the disheveled Cage embodies countercultural machismo. Roughly 80 percent of his dialogue consists of grunted variations on "I'm here about a pig" and "I want my pig." So tough (or oblivious) is Robin that he spends most of the movie with blood smeared on his face. Even when the pursuit leads him and Amir to a table in an absurdly pretentious restaurant, he doesn't wash up first.

Yet Robin never throws a single effective punch in the film, never pulls out a martial arts move. At one point, he sends Amir on a quest for hard-to-get materials with which to face an enemy. Instead of an arsenal, they're the makings of a peerless dinner.

This is the action hero reborn as a soulful chef. When Robin does manage to say something besides "I want my pig," he monologues darkly about the coming Cascades earthquake or challenges culinary poseurs to rediscover their true love of food. He seems intended to represent craftsmanship and authenticity in the food industry, in contrast to the flashy, insecure Amir. Yet, ironically, Robin and his powerful industry antagonists themselves seem more based on movie tropes than reality.

I'm not alone in that impression. In a July piece in Eater Portland, Brooke Jackson-Glidden wrote that Pig displays "a voyeur's understanding of the food world." In her view, the film's high-stakes setting "is the exact opposite of this city's industry: one that is unpretentious, collaborative, and fighting to stay alive." Prized truffle pig-napping? Culinary fight club? You can chalk those lurid elements up to poetic license.

If Pig still resonates with many viewers, that's partly because the movie draws us in visually, with the painterly dark tones of a Renaissance interior. But it's mostly because Cage sells the crap out of his role. Never mind the nebulous concepts that the screenplay asks Robin to represent. Whether he's lecturing a child on the culinary deployment of persimmons or calling out a haughty chef, the actor puts his whole heart into it.

We believe in Robin's passion for food, his need to exile himself from society and the joy he finds with his snuffly friend. He may be a fitting icon for a time when many people are experiencing isolation and loss.

Still, I admit that I was less enthralled by Pig itself than by two accompanying special featurettes in which real chefs give Cage cooking lessons to prepare for his role. Somehow, watching pros patiently explain to a Hollywood star how to hold a knife or disembowel a pigeon drives home the power of craftsmanship more effectively than any fiction can do.

If you like this, try...

The Truffle Hunters (2020; Starz): For a less fanciful account of the pursuit, watch this acclaimed documentary about a group of crusty northern Italians in search of the prized Alba truffle.

Mandy (2018; Kanopy, Shudder, rentable): Pig plays on the expectations set by movies such as this trippy revenge drama from director Panos Cosmatos. Here, too, Cage plays a Pacific Northwest recluse who would do anything for his companion — in this case, a human girlfriend.

Leave No Trace (2018; Kanopy, Hulu, rentable): If what appeals to you in Pig is Robin's off-the-grid lifestyle, check out this indie drama from Winter's Bone director Debra Granik, about a father and daughter secretly making their home in a forest reserve near Portland.