Pig *** Co-written and directed by Michael Sarnoski. Starring Nicolas Cage and Steve Tisch. Plugs: None. Nearest: Cottonwood Mall.
The story in Pig cleverly unfolds piece by piece as the setting gets increasingly larger. The film begins with one man in front of a fire by a stream deep in the Oregon wilderness. His name is Rob, and the story expands to his hermit cabin, and to his pet pig, who he uses to find —or, rather, with whom he finds— expensive truffles in the forest undergrowth. The story expands further with the appearance at the cabin of a young hotshot aspiring restaurateur named Amir (Alex Wolff) who arrives to buy Rob’s truffles and bring supplies.
All goes well until Rob’s pig is stolen. This happens early in the film, and the bulk of the story is basically about a man trying to get his pig back. The story opens up even wider when Amir joins Rob (providing transportation to the city, and companionship) as they search high (tony restaurants) and low (scrubby back alleys) in search of information on who took the pig with the specialized truffle-scouting snout. For those wondering how this is going to sustain a feature-length film, writer/director Michael Sarnoski breaks his story down into parts and uses these characters to symbolize larger themes of loss and authenticity, with mixed success. Pig is reminiscent of films such as Captain Fantastic (2016) and Leave No Trace (2018) —both also set in the Pacific Northwest forests— as well as Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, the basis for the film Adaptation (2002), starring none other than Nicolas Cage.
This is the sort of story where a character sets out to see someone and it magically happens. The person seems to somehow be in just the right place at the right time to catch the other person alone, unoccupied, and in a receptive mood. It’s tricky to criticize the film for this, however, because the story is essentially a fable, and characters in fables are typically shallow and stereotyped: the villain, the handsome prince, and so on. Here we have a rugged, truth-living mountain man and his fake city slicker friend, and others who are various shades in between this yin and yang. While Pig may at its heart be a fable, it’s a filmed fable and thus audiences (and critics) have a reasonable expectation that the characters will be more fleshed out, for narrative purposes if no other.
There are two pivotal scenes which are played achingly earnest yet unfortunately ring false. I won’t detail them, but they involve Rob confronting people from his past and making them face their inner Truths over the course of a few minutes. Encounters with Rob tend to leave people reflecting on their lost dreams, a theme which may have read great on the page but on the screen comes off as pat, forced and unconvincing. Overall the performances are good, and Cage manages to avoid chewing the scenery; I just wish the script gave the actors more to work with.
You can see why Cage —who, let’s be honest, has not been the most discerning of actors— was drawn to the film. He gets to play a mysterious recluse, a man of few words but a reservoir of wisdom. He gets to play off of a series of foils including Amir, who offers a study in (often ham-handed) contrasts. Amir’s ostentatious, consumerist-driven, highfalutin’ life in Portland is seen as vacuous compared to Rob’s simple, rustic, idealized life of dubious hygiene and porcine-assisted truffle rustling. Truth is in the freedom and wilderness, while the city life is full of evil and deceit. We get it —and so does Rob, because as we come to learn he was once in that world. Pig is an odd, mediocre film; it’s better than its premise suggests, but often a bit too precious and ponderous, taking itself much too seriously.