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Pig

Pig was crafted by writer/director Michael Sarnoski, here making his feature debut. Nicolas Cage stars and produces, with supporting turns from Alex Wolff (a prestige horror darling after his turn in Hereditary), and veteran character actor Adam Arkin. The film comes to us from Neon, the studio that’s made a reputation for itself as a purveyor of cinema arthouse sucker-punches ever since Parasite took home Best Picture.

Also, Cage plays a reclusive truffle forager who’s after his beloved pig. And the film was set and shot in sweet home Portland. You’re damn right I’m on board for this, let’s fucking go!

(Side note: Alas, because Michael Sarnoski is such a new figure to public life, I have no information as to where he was born. I cannot confirm his status as a native and/or resident of Portland.)

Cage plays Robin Feld, a hugely famous and successful chef who played a crucial role in shaping Portland’s food culture. He retired about ten years ago for reasons unknown, though it’s implied that his wife’s passing may have had some part in it. Anyway, Robin is now living in a cabin somewhere in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, where he passes time in the lucrative business of hunting truffles.

When I say that the business is lucrative, I mean that Oregon truffles can fetch a price of up to $800 a pound. This is no joke.

Robin has gone entirely off-grid and nobody’s heard from him in ages. His only contact with the outside world is Amir (Alex Wolff), a young hotshot entrepreneur who purchases and distributes Robin’s truffles. Otherwise, his only companion is the pig who helps locate and dig up his truffles.

The plot kicks up when unknown thugs break into Robin’s cabin and kidnap the pig. They don’t steal anything else (not that there’s much of anything else to steal anyway), just the pig. It’s an open question as to who else knew Robin was out there or why anyone would drive this far out to the middle of goddamn nowhere just to steal this particular pig. Still, Robin’s got nothing better to do and he’s got nothing else to lose, so he starts shaking down every remaining connection he has in the woods and in the city to try and get his pig back.

This is a very difficult movie to categorize. It’s probably more of a character drama, strictly speaking, but the film was crafted like a work of prestige horror. The oppressive shadows, the amber lighting, the close-ups, the camera angles, the atonal score… nearly every shot looks like it came from an Ari Aster picture. The one exception is the obnoxious handheld camerawork, but even that lends itself to the feeling like this should be a horror movie.

Also, this is a Nicholas Cage vehicle. As with every starring turn, Cage acts through every frame of the movie with all the anxious energy of a pent-up spring. Couple this with the ersatz horror presentation, and the whole film has this pervasive feeling like some awful scare could happen any second. Yet the scare never comes. So why doesn’t that feel like a disappointment?

The best explanation I’ve got is that the “prestige horror” delivery gives the film some weight. This is how far the filmmakers had to go to make the audience forget that on paper, this is a pathetically silly premise. But between Cage’s unique brand of committed crazy and Sarnoski’s curveball methods, this turns out to be a story filled with compelling themes and characters.

Perhaps the most important is love. No, this isn’t a love story, but this is definitely a story about love.

Even ten years after he left Portland, Robin still remembers every meal he ever cooked, every customer he ever served, and every employee who ever worked in his kitchen. This is a man defined by love for his craft, love for his wife, and yes, love for his pet pig. And the loss of them all has left him a bitter, broken, hollowed-out shell that could barely be recognized as a man. Yet even the fragmented echoes of memories of that love is enough to set him apart from the materialistic, shallow, ephemeral, uncaring “modern society” of the outside world.

Basically put, Robin is the absolute perfect counterpoint to the trendy, pretentious, overpriced, forcibly quirky “Portlandia” culture of recent years. Even better, he gets a showstopping nihilistic monologue about how nothing in Portland matters because the Great Cascadia Quake is going to wipe it all out. And let’s not forget that sequence in the first act, in which a tour through downtown food carts ends at the old Hotel Portland sub-basement under the goddamn Pioneer Courthouse Square!

Yes, of course I have to talk about how much I absolutely love this movie as a work set and shot in my native hometown. From the forests to the suburbs to the downtown nightlife, from the upscale institutions to the smaller businesses, every aspect of the Portland metro area is showcased in painstaking detail and it all looks phenomenal. I can’t tell you what it means to see my hometown so deeply ingrained into the world and themes that the film couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. And when a movie tells me something about the culture, history, and folklore of my own native town that even I didn’t know, that especially means a lot.

Which brings me to the shout-outs and disclosures.

  • At this point, I’m convinced that any film or TV show shot in Portland is required by local ordinance to put Dana Millican in there *somewhere*. (And rightly so, she’s awesome.)
  • I was astounded and overjoyed to see Gretchen Corbett show up in a brief speaking cameo. She’s a dear friend of my family, but I haven’t heard from her in ages. In fact, I’m pretty sure nobody’s heard from her in ages, she appears so infrequently that I thought she had retired long ago.
  • I’ve seen Tom Walton in a couple of live shows, but he’s completely unrecognizable here as a local butcher.
  • It’s always a pleasure to see Dalene Young onscreen. She has such a singular and adorably quirky presence, it’s like no Portland-set movie or TV show would be complete without her.
  • In the world of live Portland theatre, Darius Pierce is an institution unto himself. And if this movie gets him a film career as an economy-class Paul Giamatti, we’ll all be better off for it.

But of course the big supporting player here is Alex Wolff in the role of Amir. He starts out as a materialistic and self-absorbed douchebag, and then he gets roped into acting as Robin’s driver and liaison with the outside world. It’s genuinely compelling to watch Amir learn and grow over the course of the film — his development arc and relationship with Robin are elegantly crafted. Wolff has really come into his own as an actor over the past few years, I’m honestly impressed.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Adam Arkin, here playing Amir’s father. Without getting too deep into spoilers, he’s a man who was absolutely broken by the loss of his wife. Thus he makes for a fascinating contrast with Robin, as the two widowers butt heads.

As for Nicolas Cage, I’m not sure what else I have to say. This is Cage’s patented brand of crazy, perfectly captured and channeled into a deeply moving portrayal of an eccentric and potentially unstable enigma. Robin is a broken man with a long and painful history, so desperate and unpredictable that it’s impossible to tell what he’s thinking or what he’ll do next. Cage brings all of that and so much more to the table without even trying.

I’ve said for years that there are no bad storytellers, only bad stories, and Pig is proof. I don’t think there’s any other filmmaker out there (except maybe Taika Waititi) who could take such an inherently stupid premise and imbue it with such depth and meaning. Nicholas Cage is on fire here, parlaying his patented brand of insanity into the most sympathetic performance I’ve seen from him in years. The rest of the supporting cast is solid, and did I mention how much I absolutely love this as a Portland production?

I can personally guarantee that this one will surprise you. Definitely give it a look.

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