In reviewing Prisoners of the Ghostland earlier this year, I bemoaned the fact that directors in recent years don’t really seem to know how to effectively use Nicolas Cage — an actor who, for all the ridicule thrown his way (some fair, some not), remains one of the most uniquely talented stars of his generation. I had high hopes for Ghostland (and Mandy and Color Out of Space before it), but was left with the sinking feeling that the well may have run dry on great Cage movies. Rarely have I been happier to be wrong.
Not that — setting aside my perpetual optimism for Cage projects — I would have guessed this would be the film to buck the downward trend. On paper (and in the marketing), Pig reads like Cage’s arthouse spin on John Wick: grizzled screen legend goes on revenge tour after his beloved pet is taken from him. And hey, that’s a movie I would have paid to see, but Pig is something vastly different — a film far stranger and far more beautiful than the watered-down Wick riff I imagined it might be.
Key to the whole endeavor is that first-time director Michael Sarnoski (working from his script and a story he developed with producer Vanessa Block) gets right what so many others have gotten wrong when it comes to Cage. Instead of trying to harness Cage’s manic energy, Sarnoski instead asks the actor to tap into his still impressive emotional register, allowing him to tell a story not about an action hero obsessed with revenge, but an empathetic but broken man struggling to maintain the will to keep living.
I hesitate to give too much away — Pig is ultimately a movie best entered into cold, or perhaps with similar mistaken expectations as I had so they can be gleefully upended — but what Sarnoski does in his feature debut is remarkable, crafting a world rooted in Portland’s gourmet food scene but shifted off-kilter just enough to feel grounded yet thrillingly novel. Brightly-lit upscale restaurants are contrasted with underground waitstaff fight clubs and both manage to feel of a piece with the whole, tied together by confident framing and impressive visual acuity in collaboration with cinematographer Patrick Scola. A sense of mystery pervades every corner of a major and well-trod American city, laid in so naturally that you start wondering if perhaps these hidden machinations do in fact exist.
All this world-building is ultimately in service of a story that’s entirely comfortable with leaving you satisfyingly in the dark as to details. We know as much about why there’s an underground fight club as we do about what sort of assumed tragedy led Cage’s Rob to spend the last decade of his life in the Oregon wilderness with only a truffle pig for company — which is to say, very little. But the thematic resonance of Sarnoski and Block’s narrative is so strong that the vagaries are a feature, not a bug, an element that extends to the character work as well. On a surface level we never learn that much about those Rob comes in contact with on his journey — most notably Alex Wolff as his young companion trying to make a name for himself and an incredible Adam Arkin as a major player in the search for the missing pig — but the “what they do” is sacrificed for the “who they are” in crucial and superlative fashion.
Which brings us, finally, to the last ingredient in the Cage cocktail that Sarnoski mixes so well. Hypercompetence has become par for the course when it comes to the stars of action, neo-noir, and any of the adjacent genres which this film finds itself straddling. Pig is no exception, but incredibly, cannily weaves an absurd skill into the plot so brilliantly that the two times in which it was employed I was nearly brought to tears. This is a film where Sarnoski and Cage somehow turn empathy into a superpower, and it makes Pig one of the best viewing experiences of the year.