The trailer for NEON’s Pig, starring Nicolas Cage, promises the type of fare in which audiences regularly beg to see the legendary actor — a hard-R revenge-genre thriller with Cage going as broad as possible to rescue something, this time his lost pig. It implies something like John Wick, a violent outburst justified by the loss of something mundane or the poetry of blood-soaked catharsis with the thinnest rationale. Nicolas Cage loses his pig and wants revenge? Hell, yeah. Maybe he’ll yell wildly while doing so. Wick is certainly a masterpiece of its own class, a class to which Pig, despite the advertising, does not belong. It is simply not that type of movie.
Director Michael Sarnoski’s Pig is a bleak, measured look at a man who, at the top of his game, leaves his chosen field to find something simpler. Rob (Cage) was once a renowned chef. Now Rob lives in the forest, selling truffles to a buyer named Amir (Alex Wolff), the young son of Darius (Adam Arkin), a power broker in the restaurant industry. When Rob’s truffle-hunting pig is stolen, he and Amir venture back into the realm of top-flight restaurants to try and find her. What the pig means to Rob and what he’ll do to get her back is anyone’s guess.
Pig moves at a deliberate, almost painfully straightforward pace, held together by Cage’s committed performance. He has a monologue about being true to one’s self that feels like the actor’s best on-screen moment in decades. Cage has become famous for his willingness to take work where it leads him, which often means projects of low repute that ask him for extreme performances. His name is bankable in the realms of schlock. I certainly say “yes” to most of his new movies just to see what he’s up to at the moment. Rarely — really, really rarely — does Cage end up in a movie like Pig, where he’s asked to throw himself into such a quiet, tragic individual. A man who keeps taking punches. Who has felt the audience that he works so hard for express how little they truly care about his accomplishments. Knowing nothing of Cage’s feelings about his own career, it’s still hard to avoid the impression, having seen so much of his past decade’s work, that his central monologue dressing down a former protege who sold out does not in part feel aimed inward.
Cage aside, however, the words “painfully straightforward” aren’t used lightly. There’s little tension to Pig once Sarnoski’s game is discovered. The film itself feels aesthetically indistinguishable from any number of releases about old souls disappearing into the wilderness to find the meaning that long eluded them in professional life. Arkin is the ostensible villain and has a scene-stealing bit, but the path to him has little resistance and the resolution of his story, while emotional, does not feel like it arrives with any narrative punch. There’s plenty going on with Pig, but it’s not particularly engaging as an experience. Its philosophical notions about dealing with trauma by finding meaning in small, strange places are what they are and not much more.
Still, Pig features Cage’s best performance in years, even though the film is not what NEON is advertising to audiences. It’s a test of whether Cage can do these small films and what the reception to them will look like when he isn’t presenting the meme caricature of his talent that has become so widely known. The man is committed, a true artist with vast range that he does not exhibit nearly as often as he once did. The question I have after watching Pig is in which sense Cage empathizes with Rob. Is he the man who left everything behind to do something true to himself after he realized the vacuousness of his field? Or is he, as Rob, speaking to a version of himself in that scene, trapped doing movies and big performances for an audience who mostly want the same thing out of him with no emotional breadth or depth? Either way, Pig is certainly his best showing in years and worth watching solely to see him really bring it.