ArthouseSchmarthouse’s review published on Letterboxd:
Amazon Prime Video (Rental)
* SPOILERS *
A knowing deconstruction of the revenge thriller, as typified in recent years by the John Wick and Taken franchises (amongst many others), Pig tees up a classic genre scenario: the mysterious loner who has something precious taken from him (in this case, an adorable truffle pig named Apple) and goes on a mission to get it back. The filmmakers then go even further into this territory by casting Nicholas Cage (who as recently as 2017 starred in a film genuinely called Vengeance: A Love Story) in the lead role. In other words, this is a film which not only knows the tropes, but which also knows that you know the tropes. Of course, we've all seen trendy, indie-fied takes on this story in recent years: Blue Ruin, Bad Day for the Cut and Prevenge to name but a few. Whilst these films have their virtues and are more thought-provoking than the more exploitative end of the genre, they ultimately don't so much as subvert but rather repackage. Pig, however, turns out to be a very different beast. Despite the clichéd (if very artfully lensed) set up, which features a distressing late night assault on our protagonist's cabin deep in the remote Oregon woods, this is not the film you think it is going to be. There are moments of violence, but they are short and limited, better to focus upon the lasting impact of that violence than the act itself. What quickly becomes clear is that Pig is primarily a film about loss, forgiveness and- in an incredible and unexpected nod to the wonderful Babette's Feast- the way in which food can unlock memories, break down walls of defence and lead to genuine connection.
There is something just so deeply, achingly humane about Pig, a film which takes these well-worn revenge thriller tropes and with them creates buckets of empathy (as well as hopefully awards buzz) for Cage, who puts in his finest performance in years. He manages to do more with a single, world-weary look from his craggy, beaten-up face or a subtle hunching of the shoulders than most actors can manage in an entire film. To long-term followers of his career, the idea that Cage is a really fantastic actor when he wants to be is no surprise, but seeing as how to many he has become little more than an internet meme-producing machine over recent years it is a great to have such a strong reminder of what a motivated, focused Nic Cage can do. The filmmakers clearly know this, cannily courting these audience expectations of yet another hammy, over-the-top freakout performance and then subverting them by presenting his protagonist Robin as a gentle, decent, principled man who has a profound connection with, and respect for, the natural world.
Pig's narrative simplicity belies an impressive amount of economical world-building. Debut writer/director Michael Sarnoski takes the viewer on a journey from the backwoods of Oregon, apparently the centre of a local, hyper-niche truffle farming industry, to the bright lights of the city of Portland, introduced here via a dazzling, superimpositon-laden montage. Along the way, Robin and his buyer Amir (Alex Wolff in a career-best performance as a cocky upstart with serious daddy issues) encounter the unexpectedly cut-throat world of the gentrified Portland restaurant scene, represented in particular by Darius (Adam Arkin), who is not only Amir's father but also the head of what appears to be a sort of Oregonian truffle mafia. As the film progresses we are also taken deeper and deeper into Robin's past, and in particular how he came to end up living in the woods with only a pig for companionship, a story of loss and depression which provides a moving character arc for Robin, but which is all the better for remaining somewhat ambiguous even by the time the credits roll. There is also an "end of world is nigh" feeling to the film, with Robin at one point pointing out to Amir that the area is due a earthquake of apocalyptic proportions any day now. However this feels nowhere near as nihilistic and bleak as it first appears. "We don't get a lot of things to really care about" says Robin, embodying a message felt throughout the film that the world might end tomorrow, and all of the money or material possessions in the world wouldn't make a blind bit of difference, so don't waste your time or your love on things that don't matter.
Structurally, Pig utilizes a fairly standard genre template, with Robin and Amir moving across Portland trying to piece together a succession of clues in search of Robin's beloved porker. And yet whilst a typical revenge thriller would use this sort of set-up as a mere backdrop to violence and confrontation, Pig never loses sight of its central themes or melancholic tone. This is so even in the film's strangest, potentially silliest scene, where Robin and Amir find themselves in a bizarre underground fight club for restaurant workers. The scene works in part due to the confident filmmaking, perfectly capturing the strangeness but also slight patheticness of the scenario, and in part because of its placement in the film: like Amir, we actually know very little about Robin at this point, and so having this quiet, shambling man suddenly revealed as a big deal within this scene feels like a big reveal.
On a technical level, Pig is immaculate. The Oregonian woods are rendered beautifully and ethereally by Patrick Scola's stunning cinematography, in a similar vein to Kelly Reichardt's First Cow or Leave No Trace; Alexis Graspas and Philip Klein's score is exceptional in its earthy minimalism; and the sound design and mixing is strikingly detailed and immersive.
The best moments in Pig are those which both cleverly subvert our expectations and simultaneously provide greater insight into these characters. Robin offering himself up as a sacrifice at the fight club, taking a beating in order to get the information he needs; an encounter with the manager of a pretentious restaurant which becomes an exploration of unfulfilled dreams and compromises; and, perhaps most effectively of all, the climactic scene where, instead of violently confronting Darius, Robin and Amir instead cook a meal for him, aiming to bring back long-dormant, buried memories of a happier time, and thereby restore Darius' sense of humanity: an intoxicating, intimate and beautifully acted scene which feels like a mix of Babette's Feast and Ratatouille. This passionate appeal to reason, to de-escalation, to our shared need for connection with other people and an explicit rejection of violence feels like such a resonant and urgent message in our current times: it is highly likely to be my favourite individual scene of the year.
Pig is, ultimately, a film which works on a number of levels: a poignant, moving character study about grief and the beginnings of the long, hard healing process but at the same time there is a wider story about a city, a country: its wild, rugged past, its present stuck at a cross-roads between on the one hand violence and selfishness and on the other kindness and connection. Pig leaves you in no doubt as to which approach it favors. And, to top it all off, it closes with a hauntingly beautiful cover of "I'm On Fire", one of my personal favourite Bruce Springsteen songs. What an absolute gem this is, easily one of the best films of the year so far.