By Lynn Venhaus
No matter what perception you might have about this film beforehand, “Pig” takes you on an unexpected journey.
Like a shabby hole-in-the-wall joint that surprises you with its elevated cuisine and depth of flavor, this unorthodox drama is a richly textured experience that comes together with tender loving care.
I will be talking about this earthy delight for the rest of the year, for as a debut narrative feature, writer-director Michael Sarnoski has crafted an absorbing original tale with impeccable detail.
Nicolas Cage plays a truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregon wilderness, and after his beloved pig is poached, returns to his past life in Portland to track down his beloved animal.
On the surface, it seems simple, but oh no – uncommon riches await, and Sarnoski ladles revelations out in due time. He doesn’t dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, expecting his audience to be smart enough to fill in the blanks.
With a minimalist approach, Sarnoski immerses us in pretense and profundity. A hard-to-get lunch reservation is an astute example of both, and a pivotal scene that you won’t soon forget.
Cage’s protagonist is a disheveled hermit known to truffle purveyor Amir (Alex Wolff) as strange anti-social Rob. But out of desperation, he gets the impatient lad to drive him around the cutthroat fine-dining brotherhood of Portland, that northwest hipster mecca. They are in search of the pig but come upon much more.
Amir will get the ride of his life, for he discovers the mysterious grizzly guy is a legendary chef, THE Robin Feld, whose very name invokes great reverence – and curiosity as to what happened to him. Feld knows people, that’s why he figures out where to look and who to talk to underground.
Fifteen years earlier, Feld left his celebrated career behind to live off the grid, his chef knives and cast-iron skillet in tow. We get morsels of information as to the why, and as we get in Robin’s head, we find out he has a philosopher’s intellect and a poet’s heart.
This is a rare and meaty role for Academy Award winner Cage, whose restraint here is admirable. He speaks in hushed tones instead of grander histrionics. No matter how you view his career detours, he subtly pulls off this reflective loner with definitive artistry. It is his best performance in years.
Cage has made so many off-the-wall action films during the past 20 years, a long way from his last Oscar nomination (“Adaptation” in 2002), that he is easy to dismiss, but do not count him out.
The principal cast is playing characters that seem easy to figure out, but again, nope. These well-drawn roles not only gave Cage an opportunity to convey layers of emotional consequences, but also Wolff and Arkin.
Wolff, notable in the 2018 horror film “Hereditary” as the son who unravels, makes the most of his character’s jodyssey. Next up is M. Night Shyamalan’s “Old,” so he is having quite a summer.
Wolff’s sharply dressed brat comes across as this slick materialistic poser who is only looking out for himself, but he becomes as fascinated as we are by Robin’s backstory and sticks around.
Then, we find out about his unhappy upbringing with squabbling parents, a dad he is always trying to please but never quite measures up to, even though he emulated his career path – and a tragic mom story.
Amir is more than meets the eye, as is his self-important father, Darius, portrayed with the right amount of hubris by Arkin.
With a lush forest as backdrop, cinematographer Patrick Scola captures Feld’s tranquil existence, his pig his only companion. Sarnoski beautifully sets up their special relationship, not unlike the subjects and their dogs in the 2020 documentary “The Truffle Hunters.”
When the paid tweakers kidnap the pig, the well-choreographed attack is horrific, and leaves Robin in a bloody pool on his cabin floor.
One of the goofier aspects of the film is that Cage’s character, already unkempt, goes through nearly the entire film with his face pummeled into a swollen pulp, thanks to a “Fight Club” like scene in addition to the assault, blood streaked on his face and matted in his beard and hair. He couldn’t have taken a few minutes to clean up? However, he does wash his hands before he cooks.
The atmospheric story, by producer Vanessa Block and Sarnoski, touches on loss, love, passion, memory, and the quest for the meaning of life. Is it more important to be “somebody” or to achieve inner peace, and why should we crave approval?
Robin is a man of few words, but when he talks, people listen, and his wisdom is a special component of this moving story.
Robin tells someone: “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about in life.” And that resonates.
Sandwiched between the releases of two documentaries on renowned chefs, Wolfgang Puck and Anthony Bourdain (“Roadrunner”), this film should also appeal to foodies – as well as anyone who has spent time meditating during the pandemic.
At only 92 minutes, extra time could have provided more aspects, because I wanted to stay with these characters – but then again, it would likely be another movie, not this hypnotic trek.
“Pig” is a quiet little film with a big impact. The wrap-up may not be as satisfying as the pursuit of the truth, but overall, all the elements are impressive.
“Pig” is a 2021 drama, rated R for language and some violence. It is written and directed by Michael Sarnoski and stars Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff and Adam Arkin. Its run time is 1 hour, 32 minutes. It starts in theaters July 16. Lynn’s Grade: A-
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.