Nicolas Cage isn’t just an actor; he’s a state of mind. Having transcended meme status with evocative performances in director-driven genre fare like “Mandy” and “Color Out of Space,” the Oscar winner delivers his best performance in years as a chef-turned-recluse who briefly reenters society in writer-director Michael Sarnoski’s “Pig.” His return isn’t a happy one, however: Robin (Cage) only leaves the Oregonian wilderness after his beloved truffle pig is violently taken from him. Less revenge thriller than intimate character study, “Pig” is above all else a reminder that Cage is among the most gifted, fearless actors working today.
Robin’s routine is simple: He and his pig forage for truffles picked up once a week by his sole contact with the outside world (Alex Wolff), with many fine meals and quiet moments in between. It’s clear from the outset that this bearded, disheveled man isn’t entirely well and was driven into the woods by an unspecified trauma he’s in no rush to share with the world, but the humble existence he and his unnamed pet have been eking out seems to be enough for him — in some ways it’s even idyllic. It can’t last, of course, and we’ve only just met the precocious porker when she’s kidnapped by unidentified evildoers.
What first impresses about “Pig” is the way it manages to feel both out there and grounded, often at the same time. Aside from the obviously far-fetched nature of its premise, it includes everything from an underground fight club for restaurant workers to chapter titles like “Rustic Mushroom Tart” and “Mom’s French Toast and Deconstructed Scallops.” But it never slips into absurdity, with Sarnoski’s sparse dialogue complemented by a fittingly low-key score courtesy of Alexis Grapsas and Philip Klein. That’s also why it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Cage in the lead role: No one else can simultaneously embrace and elevate inherently ridiculous plot developments like he can while finding something close to the profound in it all.
“I remember a time when your name meant something to people, Robin,” comments the first person he sees upon his return to Portland. “But now? You have no value. You don’t even exist anymore.” The secret of this past self hums alongside the mystery of the pig’s whereabouts, and is no less compelling for the fact that Robin’s heartbreak is visible in every line on his face and every grey hair on his head. Cage pours himself into the performance, bringing a blunt earnestness to laugh cues like “I don’t fuck my pig” and “Your dad sounds terrible” that manage to be funny without allowing us to laugh at Robin.
None of this would be as effective were it not for Wolff, who plays off Cage with aplomb. The two end up a kind of odd-couple comedy duo, with Max as the straight man trying to keep a low profile and Robin as the unkempt oddball who, throughout the entire ordeal, never wipes the blood off his face or cleans the wounds he sustained while his beloved was being taken from him. Then there’s the unnamed pig herself, who’s both a MacGuffin and a compelling presence despite her limited screen time. Anyone who saw “Gunda” knows how soulful our porcine friends can be, and so it is here.
They never should have taken the pig, just as they never should have taken that stuffed bunny in “Con Air,” but Robin never gives the impression that he’s on the warpath and those who wronged him are about to be sorry. However much we may want “Pig” to turn into something like “John Wick,” Sarnoski refuses the temptation at every return — our hero is simply too worn down to do the sort of things we’re used to seeing Cage do.
As a descent into the apparently high-stakes world of truffle-pig-poaching, “Pig” is unexpectedly touching; as a showcase for Cage’s brilliance, it’s a revelation. “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about,” Robin tells a fellow chef at the end of a stirring monologue about our aspirations, the fleeting nature of success, and everything in between. Whether it be truffles, animal companions, or something entirely different, we should all be lucky enough to care about something as much as Robin cares about his pig, regardless of how it turns out.