It's true that there are few real things for us to care about in
this life. But why oh why, for me, did it have to be movies?
dir: Michael Sarnoski
Pig is an amazing film, in that it’s amazing to believe that of the twenty or so movies Nicolas Cage still makes a year, very occasionally there will be an okay one, an almost better than okay one. Pig is surprising for that reason, if no other.
It’s a simple enough premise, but it’s the same premise taken to absurd lengths that underpins other far more violent flicks where the death of a pet or the loss of an animal is an excuse to kill a bunch of people. The action in John Wick kicks off with the shooting of a dog. The Rover with Guy Pearce has a man kill a whole bunch of people in a post-collapse landscape because he wants to get his dead dog back.
Pig has a guy searching for his pig, which has been stolen. But it’s not used as an excuse to kill a whole bunch of people. While there is a small amount of violence in the film, it is visited upon the protagonist, rather than him visiting righteous vengeance upon others. It subverts not only the expected path for these kinds of films, but for Nicolas Cage films in general.
I’ve heard tell, quite often, that Portland, Oregon is an odd place, and this film doesn’t make it seem any less weird. The main character, Rob (Cage) and his odyssey through the curious culinary underworld of Portland is a journey of a broken, barely speaking man who looks like he’s been destroyed by life. The pig was his only companion, and with whom he sought out truffles, which he gave to Amir (Alex Wolff) in exchange for food basics. They lived in a shack in the woods, somewhere near the Willamette River. How do I know it’s the Willamette River? They talk about the Willamette all the fucking time. Considering that I even know about the Willamette River mostly due to the Wildwood novels written by Colin Meloy of The Decemberists fame, I get the feeling there’s not much else going on there other than the river and rare culinary treats.
Rob, as he’s known, takes a beating from two shady characters who pilfer the pig. Rob then embarks on his journey to getting the pig back by going towards a place he has avoided for over a decade. He only goes to the kinds of places that are somehow tied to the food services industry, but more on the exotic produce and ingredients side. In such an imagined world, a truffle finding pig of high quality would be extremely valuable, and everyone would somehow know about it.
Where I live, if I had a pig, and someone stole it, and then I wandered around the local restaurants and markets grunting about my pig, most likely I wouldn’t find the pig, and people wouldn’t answer my questions, and I’d probably get arrested. There isn’t much visual disparity between how I generally appear at my best and Cage’s character appears at his worst, but my name doesn’t carry the weight that his character’s does here.
Where he goes, his enquiries usually lead to the next breadcrumb on a surreal trail. Amir, a young jerk who drives a flash car and listens to haughty speeches about classical music being better than other music because duh, cannot believe that Rob is revered by the food underworld.
And it is an underworld. Woven into the story are all these references to death, the earth, the underworld, an underground fight club. They even go to a high class deconstructed molecularised restaurant call Eurydice, which, honestly, come on. We know from very early on, when Rob puts batteries into a cassette player, and tries and fails to listen to a tape that has written on it “For Robin”, we know someone has died that he loved a lot. It’s all transferred grief, grief delayed, grief extended. Cassettes are immediately now, in cinematic terms, relics of grief and the dead. So dated do they seem that years from now people won’t even believe we used them to record songs off the radio or to record ourselves carrying on like pork chops when we wrote audio plays for ourselves in primary school.
People sometimes forget and joke that John Wick is that ridiculous film series where Keanu Reeves kills thousands of people coming after him all because someone killed his dog. They forget that the reason he cared about the dog so much is that his wife gave him the dog as she was dying of cancer. So the dog came to be a stand in for his wife, and remained as an emotional connection to the world when he lost everything else. The dog dying was like his wife dying again.
That might be Screenwriting 101 these days, as in it’s a trope almost as common as the assassin who decides they want out of the crime life but have to protect 1 young girl whose father they probably killed themselves, which has been in about 10 action films I’ve seen this year (your film automatically gets uploaded to Netflix if it has that premise), but because this film isn’t about seeking an excuse for copious action scenes, we get to sit with the main character’s grief for much longer. Does the pig symbolise his dead wife? I have no idea, but though they call him Rob or Robin, eventually, Cage’s character is grieving, and traversing the underworld in order to get someone back that he loves, and it would have been way too on the nose if they’d just called him Orpheus, already.
The thing about Orpheus and Eurydice, of course, is that no-one gets to come back from the dead. Orpheus is given a set of requirements as to what he has to do in order to bring his beloved out of the underworld, but can’t quite resist stealing a glance at the one he loves so much, and then…
The rest of us mere mortals don’t get any chances to get our dearly departed back from the other side, no matter how much we refuse to accept it. And Rob here isn’t about to let it go.
When they end up at an underground fight club, it’s not what you think it is, though it curiously makes so much sense for anyone that has either worked in or knows people who’ve worked as cooks or chefs. People nominate themselves as a target, and then other food services people lower on the totem pole bid on being able to beat them up unopposed according to a timer. I can see how something like this would be great, where dishpigs bid on being able to get their own back on some sous chef.
I mean, it doesn’t make absolute sense, in that, I have no idea what’s in it for the person who’s not Robin getting beaten up (he does it in order to get the next piece in the puzzle from the man running the fights), but I can see the catharsis for wait staff and the ones in the kitchen that get yelled at the most.
Robin’s sidekick Amir, though a callow and jerky youth, has his own grief and pain in his life. At first, when he finds out who Robin actually is, he relates a story where his parents, whose relationship sounded contentious or difficult, one night went and had a meal prepared by the great Robin Feld, and they couldn’t stop talking about it for years, so deeply were they moved by the culinary experience.
Amir then relates, when asked, that his mother committed suicide, but later in the flick he visits his mother, who’s been in a coma we can presume since the suicide attempt, in some kind of a care facility, in a scene that wrecked me for reasons I won’t go into. Amir is mourning a mother who has been gone for years, and yet her physical form still remains.
And then there’s the ruler of the underworld, a cruel man call Darius (Adam Arkin), who controls all the markets for produce and ingredients, who controls the food services fight club, who hired the scumbags who stole his pig, all because of his own loss, being the wife who tried to kill herself.
Yes, it’s a bit of a spoiler, but the ruler of the underworld, and the one Amir tries most to impress with his own hustling in the produce and spices game, is his own father.
When Robin sees how hardhearted Darius is, he can think of only one way to get his pig back, and of course it involves food.
The reason I think that the film works (it’s beautifully well made, the whole way everything has been put together, and the way the script has been interwoven with the exotic bonkers world of fine dining) is because we expect Cage to acts nuts in every role now, but he deliberately underplays the role here. Infamous for his overacting, he now delights us with underacting. Underacting is no easier than any other form of acting, and Cage does really well with this role. He only goes full bonkers Cage for a brief scene after his first meeting with Darius, but most of the rest of the time he is subdued but powerful in his garbled line readings.
There are so many great scenes. Probably the one most renowned is the one at the restaurant called Eurydice. A waiter lists a bunch of stuff and mouths a bunch of buzz words, and a deconstructed scallop is brought surrounded by a glass container in which pine cone smoke has been trapped to infuse the scallop. Rob can’t even understand how it can be food. When the chef deigns to speak to the customer, Rob remembers him from decades ago, as a low-ranking cook who he fired for over-cooking the pasta all the time. But he remembers him, and what his dream was. Robin, implausibly, remembers every meal he’s ever cooked, and the people he made it for, and everyone who worked for him, and what their dreams were.
The whole scene with this chef is stupendous, mostly because of how much Robin, who still looks like a crazy homeless guy, convinces the chef that none of any of this is real, and that he abandoned his own soul when he signed up for this illusionary crap. With the quiet fervor of a deranged hermit or holy man, Robin tells him that none of this is real, none of the critics, the write-ups, the customers who flock only because of the meaningless reviews, none of it is real compared to loving cooking and wanting to cook a signature dish with the best produce and all of your abilities brought to bear.
It's phenomenal, but even that isn’t as amazing as the last scene with Darius, where a cold and cruel man is undone, but we get a glimpse, a sliver of understanding, that controlling the food underworld, trying to keep the best of it apart from those who could best use it, making the world of food illusory and not real, not heartfelt and loving, is his response to losing the only person he can love, and that includes his son.
Grief sometimes gives us space to love another in a different way, and other times it makes us dread love and destroy what we can in revenge against a world that takes what we love away from us. This is a strange film, but it’s a deeply enjoyable one, no matter how implausible the story might seem. I think Cage’s destroyed man keeps things grounded enough that the unlikely connections between everyone and the surreal manner in which everything progresses doesn’t detract from what the story is really about.
I loved this film, and I feel like I got to spend a bit of time with an old friend, briefly sober, who got to artfully tell me something of his troubles for an hour and a half, before he wandered off again, doubtless towards more sorrow and loss. There are no neat endings, no carefully wrapped up storylines, happy resolutions or people growing or becoming better people. There’s just grief, loss and sadness. And that’s it.
But at least we had this brief time together. Cage has done twenty other shitty films this year, but at least he made this really good one, it feels like, just for me.
9 times and the pig is really cute too out of 10
“Every day you wake up and there'll be less of you. You live your life for them and they don't even see you. You don't even see yourself. We don't get a lot of things to really care about.” - Pig