On more than one occasion in Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, Robin (Nicolas Cage), a stout, unkempt man in search of a beloved sow, is framed by a doorway, the camera peeking at him from within a house. The composition knowingly evokes the final shot of The Searchers (1956), where John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is excluded from the community that sanctioned his racist brutality in the first place: an indictment of both the character and the cause he labours for. Robin’s exclusion, on the other hand, is of his own volition: he was once a well-regarded chef in Portland, Oregon, before a bereavement capsized his life and inspired him to take to a cabin in the woods, Walden-like, and hunt truffles for a lonely living. He’s only brought back into the city’s reach because his pet pig, believed to be the secret to the high quality of the truffles he unearths, is stolen in the middle of the night: he wakes up after the assault on the floor, his hair matted, gelatinous with blood.
If more recent Cage performances, like his execrable work in Mandy (2018), have taught me anything, it’s that he’ll seek his vengeance. Not so here. Though the film shapes up to be John Wick with a pig, it turns out more like Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (2018) than anything else, in its vision of a person so damaged by past associations he takes to abandoning the wider world altogether. It’s tempting to be moved by this: a grief realised as a permanent disengagement from other people. But Pig muddies even that possible emotive claim, because it’s a film so precariously balanced between silliness and sincerity. Cage’s pared-down performance rests on the way he carries himself like a burden, in his slow and drawn out line readings; he casts on the film a tone of resignation that the script does everything in its power to contradict. His performance is at odds with the facile existentialism of his dialogue, its half-arsed apocalypse anxieties, its masochism. His out-of-placeness seems ready made to generate easy binaries: between past and present, country and city, the rustic and the modern.
Nowhere are these binaries more punishing than in Robin’s interactions with Amir (Alex Wolff), who supplies truffles to Portland’s high-end restaurants. Caricatured with a yellow sports car, tight suits, and a love of classical music, the film tries to assert a common trait between the two in a dinner scene: both are framed in profile, each siphoned off from the other within the shots. Both are inarticulate, Robin by choice, Amir by smuggling his trauma behind his words (millennials and feelings, what are they like!). The setting of this scene, a plush eatery, is appropriate: Pig is a covert food movie, as each chapter is named after a dish that will appear within it, though there is a fourth that plays a crucial, rather Proustian role late in the day.
Instead of raising his fists, Robin’s weapons are his words, and more than once he reduces his adversaries to tears by expertly exerting upon their emotional pressure points. But what does this achieve? For all that Pig subverts genre expectations, the route it takes keeps tripping up over the detritus of previous scenes (a fight club exclusively for restaurant workers? Excuse me?) and misjudged performances, like Wolff’s attempt to be the foil to Cage’s quietude, which gets lost behind his irritating verbal mannerisms. Add to that a general lack of distinction in its aural and visual style (the hand-held camera with a widescreen frame does its images few favours), and the film’s pleasures are reduced to moments in Cage’s performance, a very good pig, and one beautiful dish.