‘Pig’ Review: That’ll Do

There’s a clean, earnest simplicity to Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, a willingness to risk silliness by eschewing sarcasm and the sort of broad, obvious cuteness that so often characterizes a-man-and-his-animal films. Cage’s gruff, disheveled former chef Robin Feld and his unnamed pig have touching onscreen chemistry, but there’s no shot of man and pig eating identical meals side by side, no choreographed morning routine. In fact there’s very little that’s formulaic here, though that’s not to say the film is structurally or narratively audacious or off-putting. Its one weakness is Sarnoski’s strange decision to employ a shaky, constantly moving camera which never seems to have anything in particular in mind when it comes to motion, but strong lighting and set dressing as well as one of the finest performances of Cage’s career more than excuse the minor lack of visual focus.

Cage isn’t a meme of himself, here. He’s not Nicholas Cage-ing. Instead he’s quiet and sincere, investing the film’s simple story with a grace that elevates even its most staid conventions. The death of his wife is important to understanding his character, but we understand her only through a short and breathlessly sexy recording on a cassette tape she made for him on his birthday, years ago. There are no hacky scenes of Cage clean-cut and de-aged at her bedside, no tragic story of how special their love was, or how her death drove him to live alone deep in the Oregon woods. They loved each other, had a life together, and then it ended. In one touching scene Feld visits the house they once shared, pausing a moment to play a young boy’s handpan drum and explain the growth and preparation of persimmon fruit. The connection he had to his wife still exerts a pull on him, bringing out his finest and gentlest qualities.

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The Sense Most Strongly Tied to Memory

As much as the film is structured around absence — Feld’s late wife, his friend Ahmir’s (Alex Wolff) comatose mother, the titular pig — the world these absences have left behind is alive and rich with memory. “I remember every meal I ever cooked,” Feld tells domineering and callous restaurant supplier Darius (Adam Arkin), Ahmir’s father. “I remember every customer I ever served.” Watching Darius break down as he gradually realizes that a meal Feld and Ahmir prepared for him is the same one he shared with his wife many years before, you can believe the chef’s extraordinary claim. Just as in traveling across Portland Feld revisits his old life, so too does the film give us ample opportunity to watch the simple process of food conjuring memories from nothing. These scenes are touching, almost romantic, but there is no “movie magic” in them, no closing montage of the characters Feld touched with his art and his blunt, earthy wisdom making good on their dashed dreams and broken connections.

“We only get a few things to really care about,” Feld tells a former employee turned trendy but soulless superstar chef (David Knell). The way he delivers the line, husky and wounded but still vital, still connected to the world, gives the story a tender sort of urgency. The battered lives we see along the way to the film’s bittersweet final moments echo this sensibility, drawing out and amplifying the theme of living with emotional injury. No tidy resolution, no earth-shaking personal changes. It’s a movie about living rather than survival, about pleasure and love and passion. With extraordinary deftness Cage achieves something rare in Pig, his performance so nuanced, so emotionally frank that it becomes greater than the film’s narrative structure, suggesting with astonishing ease and naturalism a complete life in which the film’s events are only one brief, if exceptional, episode.