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‘Pig’: Nicolas Cage skips the hamminess in an elegant story of pain and purpose

The unpredictable actor delivers some of his best work in years as a loner out to rescue his truffle-hunting friend.

Nicolas Cage plays a hermit whose routine in the wilderness is disrupted when meth addicts steal his beloved animal companion in “Pig.”
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When I first saw the poster for “Pig,” with a closeup of Nicolas Cage glaring right at us while sporting yet another long-haired/unruly beard combo platter, and I read the tagline, “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about,” and I heard this was the story of a reclusive truffle farmer who must return to the big city in search of his kidnapped pig, I thought:

Uh-oh. Is this “John Wick,” but with a pig instead of a puppy?

It certainly sounded like the latest in a long line of quickly forgotten, over-the-top, paycheck-cashing, Nicolas Cage vehicles, in the mostly dubious tradition of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” and “Jiu Jitsu” and “Willy’s Wonderland” and “Primal” and “Kill Chain” and “Running with the Devil” and “Color Out of Space” and “A Score to Settle,” and that’s just the last three years of Cage cranking out so many bat-bleep crazy movies it’s become a thing and a meme and a GIF, to the point where even Cage is on the joke, at least to a point.

Well, here’s the beautiful news. Director/co-writer Michael Sarnoski’s “Pig” is a brutal, elegant, mournful, captivating and magnificently filmed story that somehow manages to mix in elements of wilderness films such as “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Into the Wild,” kitchen-centric cooking movies like “Burnt” and there’s even a scene straight out of “Fight Club” — not to mention more than one reference to Greek tragedies. Through it all, Nicolas Cage delivers a performance of simmering greatness, grabbing every inch of the screen without hamming it up, dominating scenes in which he has very little dialogue, and moving us deeply when he is asked why it means so much to him to get his pig back, when after all, there are other pigs out there.

“I love her,” comes the reply. And we believe him, and we want nothing more than for this man to be reunited with the one creature on this Earth he still cares about.

Sarnoski divides the story into chapters with absurdist titles such as “Rustic Mushroom Tart” and “Mom’s French Toast and Deconstructed Scallops” and continually navigates the line between the existential and the gritty/authentic, starting with the opening, dialogue-sparse sequences set deep in the Oregon wilderness where Cage’s Rob lives in a remote cabin with his beloved truffle pig, who is a master at sniffing out the rare fungi coveted by so many restaurateurs. Once a week, an ambitious young salesman named Amir (Alex Wolff) comes roaring up in his obnoxious yellow muscle car and traipses through the mud and muck in his dress shoes to buy the truffles from Rob, who barely acknowledges Amir’s presence and has no interest in idle conversation.

This is the routine, and it’s the routine Rob would like to follow for the rest of his days — but his world is shattered when two meth addicts break into his cabin in the middle of the night and take his pig, and the sounds of that terrified squealing animal will pierce your heart. Rob learns his pig is most likely in the hands of someone in Portland, so for the first in 15 years, he’ll return to the city where he was once a legendary chef and is now something of a mythical figure. He wants his pig back. He’ll do anything to get his pig back.

The seemingly slick salesman (Alex Wolff) who buys Rob’s truffles helps him hunt for the pig.
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Once we’re in Portland, “Pig” is a deep dive through the looking glass, as Rob endures a horrific beating before he has even cleaned up the wounds sustained at the hands of the kidnappers and spends the rest of the journey careening through town covered in blood and dirt, oblivious to the stares of the townsfolk. Alex Wolff and Cage have a terrific buddy-movie chemistry, as we learn the outwardly slick and smug Amir is at heart a decent fellow estranged from his monstrous father (Adam Arkin), who is the Pacific Northwest’s unquestioned king of rare foods and is in fact competition for Amir and might well have had something to do with pig’s disappearance. In one of the many spectacularly staged set-piece scenes in the film, the search for the pig brings Rob and Amir to an achingly trendy restaurant called Eurydice (a character in Greek mythology and that choice of name is no accident), where Rob meets with the celebrated Chef Finway (David Knell) and recalls in perfect detail how Finway briefly worked for him 15 years ago — and then proceeds to reduce the arrogant celebrity chef to a puddle by pinpointing him as a total sellout.

“Pig” is not a revenge film, nor is it the most compelling mystery in the world, though we care greatly about the fate of that poor creature, and we do eventually find out what happened to her. It’s a rustic, poetic, occasionally funny, sometimes heartbreaking and wonderfully strange and memorable character study of a man who is in such tremendous pain he had to retreat from the world. Cage is magnificent as Rob, reminding us that when he’s at his best and he has the right vehicle, he’s one of the best actors in the world. This is one of the best movies of the year.