Wednesday 25 August 2021

Bringing home the bacon: "Pig"

Even amid their creative prime mover's gonzo mid-career plunge into VoD-ready genre fodder, undertaken chiefly to help an actor accumulate the world's tallest stack of Superman comics, Nic Cage movies remain like snowflakes: no two are ever quite alike. Cage has become one of two survivors of the crumbling Hollywood star system whose work rate rivals that of certain Bollywood players, and where Bruce Willis has long settled for being a drained face on a poster, his near-contemporary has been enthusiastically ticking off all those ideas mashed up in the average masala flick, only spread out across four or five projects a year. (For all the actor's much-memed, much-mocked onscreen mania, this new career plan seems relatively sane.) The disarming Pig, co-written and directed by newcomer Michael Sarnoski, presents as a prime example of how Cage refuses to be caged. On paper, it sounds like a batshit hicksploitation knock-off of the John Wick series: Cage plays a truffle hunter in the Oregon wilds who sets out for restitution after his pig is snatched away in the dead of night. Yet it winds up in territory adjacent to Kelly Reichardt's recent First Cow, another heartfelt meditation on food, brotherhood, the predations of consumer capitalism, and the changing face of Portland. (And another early 21st-century film about characters trying to hold onto what little they have left.) You'll have to travel with it, and be ready to follow its sometimes pinballing plot logic; the underlying assumption is that, after Con Air, Face/Off, Mandy and that one in the desert with Russell Brand, the Cage fanbase is well placed to make those leaps. Yet the finished feature does the best thing a movie can do at this stage in the game: it surprises us.

Those surprises start early. A wordless prologue, for one, establishing the bond between Cage's solitary Rob and his prized porker, a bright-eyed, russet-hued snuffler named Wicky who resembles no less a sweetheart than a Babe fully grown. When the bacon is taken, it's all over in a flash, where a more cynical filmmaker might have amped up the brutality. Sarnoski has his own methods of ducking and diving. Digging its entrenched protagonist out of the woods, Pig then dispatches him into the sleekly callous indifference of the city, with its chi-chi New Age restaurants built over underground fight clubs. A characteristically leftfield (yet quietly rewarding) idea pairs Rob with a young middleman, Amir (Alex Wolff), who's profited from the system - he has the flashy car and the shiny suits - but held onto a residual sliver of conscience, born of a deep-rooted, personal understanding of where violence of any kind gets us. (One further surprise: this kid listens to opera in his car. Emerging from the quietude of the forest, Rob is less keen.) Then there is Cage himself, changing shape before us. As his bulked-up backwoodsman gets smacked around by one party or another, his face swells further, offering only more hurt and sadness for Sarnoski to photograph. (One definition of a star: someone who knows how best to occupy the frame at any given moment.) Why would Rob clean himself up? He'd seem a sorry mess, a man out of place in today's civilisation, even without his scars; better, surely, to keep them in place, as a badge of honour or proof of suffering. Rob wears his heart on a tattered sleeve, and his status on his face: here is a man badly beaten by market forces.

Older and greyer here than he's ever appeared on screen - bearing the worry lines of a late-period Mel Gibson, without the extratextual baggage - Cage assumes the burden of occupying three or four films simultaneously, and keeping Pig at least semi-coherent. That's some feat, given that Sarnoski is at once overseeing a lean, linear thriller (man loses pig, man sets out to retrieve pig), a satire on the vagaries of the Portland food scene, a tragedy about gentrification, and a keening study in grief and impermanence. Some of these stories come to trip over others, and the chapter headings that season the action - each a different meal - look like an affectation (as movie chaptering tends to be), an attempt to streamline the broader zigzagging between themes, moods and ideas. At least it has themes, moods and ideas to zigzag between, though, and most of those have been attentively compiled, enhanced by the autumnal look cinematographer Patrick Scola cultivates, and the mournful score by Alexis Grapsas and Philip Klein. Pig winds its way towards one last surprise, namely the nature of the final showdown between our hero and the film's big bad (Adam Arkin): so unexpected that I may have given out a little "oh" as events drew to a close. The understatement may just throw the Cage hardcore, but Pig also has the potential to win back those viewers who'd long concluded this actor was no longer capable of such restraint. "We don't get a lot of things to care about," sighs Rob, at the point where he's started to size up the world to which he's been so reluctantly returned. Sarnoski does care, you sense, and what makes his film so striking and touching is this readiness to sound a note of sincerity we really don't hear often enough in American movies nowadays.

Pig is now screening in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and   


  1. Haven't seen this one yet, but a friend did and hated it - however, everything he said about it made me really want to see it!

    I think one reason Mr Cage works so much is because people want to work with him, he's apparently a lovely guy on the set and really easy to get along with while filming. Contrast with Mr Willis who these days looks like he's being forced to act at gunpoint. I know who I'd rather make a film with.

    1. Agreed. (And glad to hear nice things about NC.) The film is well worth investigating...