You never know what to expect with a Nicolas Cage film. That’s part of his charm. One minute he’s battling mutant extraterrestrials, the next he’s taking on possessed animatronic robots. And then there’s Michael Sarnoski’s debut film “Pig,” which features a toned-down performance by Cage reminiscent of “Joe,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” and “Red Rock West.” It’s some of his finest work, but Alex Wolff is the real standout here in a masterful portrayal of an ambitious lost soul living in his father’s shadow.
Filmed in the scenic Oregonian wilderness, which in the past has provided the backdrop for films that include “Wild,” “Twilight,” and” The Shining,” Nicolas Cage plays a retired chef named Rob Feld, once the star of Portland’s culinary scene, who now spends his days as a recluse living in an isolated cabin with his beloved truffle pig. The two routinely venture out into the woods in search of the highly prized fungi known as the “diamond of the kitchen.” As it turns out Rob’s pig has a snout for sniffing out fragrant truffles, which sometimes sell for thousands per pound.
Alex Wolff (“Hereditary”) plays Amir, a mover & shaker in Portland’s restaurant scene, someone who would be featured in a business weekly’s “Top Young Entrepreneurs under 30” list. He drives a sporty yellow Camaro, listens to classical music, wears designer duds, and visits Rob weekly to pick up the latest truffle allotment, which he then sells to the area’s finest restaurants.
Beneath the façade, Amir is an imposter. He’s not a cool cat or ladies’ man, he’s a lonely soul living under the shadow of his estranged father Darius (Adam Arkin), a rare foods supplier to Portland’s restaurants and Amir’s main competition.
When a couple of thieves break into Rob’s cabin overnight and make off with his prized swine, he demands Amir drive him to the city he abandoned 15 years ago to find his pig. Thus begins a surreal odyssey into Portland’s underworld filled with illegal fight clubs, junkies, black markets, trendy restaurants, shady hash slingers, and a lonely monarch everyone knows you don’t cross.
The common thread that ties Rob, Amir, and Darius together is grief. All three men are suffering from personal loss, but Cage’s character is the only one who has come to terms with his heartache. When tragedy struck, Rob abandoned everything at the height of his career. His pig played a vital role in the healing process, which explains why he wants her back so badly. One of the film’s standout scenes takes place in a trendy eatery where Rob explains to the owner-chef (a terrific David Knell) “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.”
Written by Sarnoski and producer-screenwriter Vanessa Block, the two previously worked together on the 2015 short documentary “The Testimony,” the film is a surreal odyssey where food truck fight clubs (don’t get any ideas Food Network) run by a shadowy mafioso figure named Edward (Darius Pierce) are the norm. As Rob and Amir move from one encounter to another, “Pig” tightens its grip on the viewer. The pacing is spot on and there isn’t one wasted frame in Sarnoski’s debut.
At times the dialogue can be disconcerting as when Cage’s chef Rob goes off on a tangent about Portland returning to the bottom of the ocean after a massive earthquake, but just before that moment, we are treated to Wolff’s character delivering a sincere monologue about his mother and father that is truly mesmerizing. Wolff is superb as Amir, delivering the best performance of his career.
Adam Arkin as Amir’s estranged father is compelling to watch. He may be the rare foods king of Portland, but he comes off as a Godfather-type figure who instills fear in the local industry. You can see why Amir fears his father but also why he respects him so much.
Finally, Nicolas Cage reminds us that he can easily transition from the eccentric roles he’s been playing lately back to weighty performances that in the past have earned him an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. His terrific and toned-down performance makes “Pig” one of the best films of the year. Pure, poetic, soul-nourishing cinema.
Now showing in theaters