“I want my piiiiiig.”
Every once in a blue moon a film comes along that defies all my personal preferences for gratuitous violence, interweaving character arcs, and conceptual absurdity, gently takes me aside, and calmly invites me to think about something other than space aliens for a little while.
Pig – starring human meme Nicolas Cage, Hereditary’s Alex Wolff, and that’s pretty it – is one such film. The trailer, which dropped back in June to much intrigue and speculation, suggested this would be a no-holds-barred, splatter-happy, grit-encrusted revenge thriller akin to Mandy or perhaps John Wick But With a Pig. At any rate, that’s what the Internet collectively assumed, and for once it could hardly be blamed for jumping to conclusions. Nic Cage has been a busy man lately, churning out an average of seventeen-and-a-half movies a year to placate the IRS and maintain his private collection of dinosaur skulls and European castles. While the majority of these movies go straight to urine-soaked Redboxes and DVD racks inside Value Drug Marts, a few (namely Mandy and Colour Out of Space) have actually been pretty damn good, or at least interesting enough to generate discussion (truth be told, though, I’m still undecided as to whether I liked Mandy or was simply impressed by it). Good or bad, the one element people have come to expect from a Nicolas Cage movie is Nicolas Cage himself in all his insanity-fueled, scenery-eviscerating glory, and given that Mandy and Colour Out of Space both delivered on this expectation with vodka and tomatoes (respectively), it was reasonable to assume Pig would as well.
Hopefully, those anticipating psychedelic imagery, buckets of blood, and a standard Nic Cage freak-out won’t be terribly disappointed, because the story Pig has to tell is simple, profound, and almost completely bloodless.
Be forewarned — spoilers abound in plenteousness.
Nicolas Cage headlines as Rob Feld, a man who once dominated the Portland culinary scene but has since withdrawn to an isolated cabin deep in the Oregon wilderness. He spends his days foraging for truffles with his beloved pet pig, cooking gourmet meals, and looking dazed and disheveled. His only contact with the outside world is Amir (Alex Wolff), an aspiring young restaurant supplier with more daddy issues than Theon Greyjoy and less charisma, smarts, and respect than Fredo Corleone. Amir purchases Feld’s fungal delicacies and sells them to high-end restaurants, all in the hopes of earning some recognition from his father Darius (Adam Arkin), who appears to have taken a page or two from Tywin Lannister’s Guide to Emotionally-Invested Parenting. One fateful night, some junkies break into Feld’s cabin, assault him, and make off with his pig, because if there’s one thing films have taught me, it’s that protagonists are punished severely for daring to have nice things in the first act. Determined to get his pig back, Feld calls up Amir, returns to his old stomping grounds, and proceeds to… challenge those around him to be better than they are.
For John Wick, the loss of a treasured pet served as the catalyst for three movies of pencil-pushing action (and counting!), but for Rob Feld, this brutal inciting incident simply rouses him from his emotional stupor and forces him back into society. No, Pig is not the sort of high-caliber revenge tale that reignited Keanu Reeves’ career or has kept Liam Neeson running around searching for kidnapped daughters for the past decade; rather, it’s a thoughtful examination of grief, loss, and the inevitable brokenness that results when we choose to flee from our pain instead of facing it head-on. Aside from the home invasion early on, there’s only one other depiction of violence in the entire film, which occurs when Feld infiltrates an exclusive underground fight club for restauranteurs in order to obtain information on the whereabouts of his pig (an undeniably odd scene, but one that demonstrates Feld’s enduring legacy amongst the city’s food community). Otherwise, the plot largely consists of Feld following leads, mumbling “I’m looking for a truffle piiiiiiiig,” and engaging in emotionally-honest discourse. Really, the only thing Pig has in common with John Wick is how inclined to casual conversation their protagonists are.
The blood has nothing to do with the film — Cage just shows up on set like this.
Everyone in this film is either running from something or attempting to deal with something from their past in the least effective manner possible. For Feld, it’s the tragic death of his wife years earlier, which compelled him to abandon his calling as a chef and resign himself to seclusion in the woods; for Amir, it’s the attempted suicide of his mother that rendered her comatose (a suffering he shares with his father, whose own response was to became remote and bitter). Just as the theft of Feld’s pig triggers an awakening in him after years of reclusiveness, so his return to Portland results in similar awakenings in those he crosses paths with. One notable encounter involves a man who used to cook pasta at Feld’s restaurant a decade earlier, now the head chef at the sort of trendy restaurant where they keep saffron-shakers on the table and charge $900 for a finger-sized serving of duck. Upon reuniting, Feld pointedly reminds his former pasta chef (whom he remembers vividly) of his oft-professed dream of opening an old-fashioned pub before asking why he caters to elitist food snobs instead. Suffice to say, the sheer emotional affliction that manifests on the poor head chef’s face (not to mention the giant gulp of wine he takes to stave off tears) betrays his realization that Feld is correct – he did sell out and now he’s paying the price. This instance is but one of several where the overwhelming power of memory is put on display, a thematic seed that really blossoms when Amir reveals how Feld’s cooking once led to a wonderful evening of bliss in his parents’ otherwise acrimonious marriage. The fact that Amir still remembers this after so many years gives testimony to the positive impact Feld once had in the lives of others, an impact he could have again if he would only return to the world of the living.
Traumatic as the theft of Feld’s pig undoubtedly was, one could argue that it was necessary to draw him out of hiding and force him to finally face the pain in his past, which he has been avoiding to his own detriment. Confronting our pain is not an enjoyable experience, but it’s a vital part of the healing process nonetheless (a life lesson imparted to me by Kung Fu Panda 2). It’s not an easy thing to do, which is why so many us opt to ignore that which pains us by immersing ourselves in work or addictions, insulating ourselves from anything that could potentially generate more pain, or burying ourselves with our dead instead of moving forward with our lives. Feld’s pig is symbolic and functions as an emotional surrogate for his dearly departed wife, the same as John Wick’s dog. It’s his constant companion and the only thing he thinks he has left to care about, even though we clearly see that many individuals from his past still care about him enough to remember him when he resurfaces. Fun as John Wick is, one could argue that the path of vengeance Wick takes against the Russian mob isn’t healthy or conducive to his emotional recovery (even if it makes for some kick-ass spectacle). On the other hand, the route Feld chooses to get his pig back (which I wouldn’t dare spoil here) is decidedly different and hints at genuine catharsis not solely for him, but for all parties involved (or at least, the opportunity for catharsis). Though the finale doesn’t involve any fistfights on rainy piers or exploding vehicles or spring-loaded booby traps or villains getting their comeuppance by being launched into helicopters on missiles, it still packs one hell of a punch and implies that brighter days are on the horizon.
In conclusion, Pig is a slow and somber meditation on unresolved grief and loss that takes its characters on journeys through their pain, and while the matter of whether they will release and resolve their issues is somewhat ambiguous, the finale leaves you feeling hopeful. It’s not something I normally have much of a palette for, but in this case it’s just too exquisite a dish to pass up.