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Pig (2021)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"That'll Do, Nic."
5 stars

When it was announced that Nicolas Cage was planning to star in a film that would have him playing a reclusive truffle hunter who leaves his cabin in the Oregon wilderness for the streets of Portland to track down his beloved foraging pig after she is kidnapped, Twitter practically exploded with delight at the possibility of another bizarro Cage film along the lines of—well, approximately 85% of all the films that he has done over the last couple of decades. When the trailer came out several weeks ago, you could practically hear film geeks salivating over the memes, gifs and YouTube highlight reels that they would soon be putting together. You cannot really blame them for anticipating that it was going to be yet another one of those seemingly inexplicable cinematic endeavors that Cage tends to select for reasons that perhaps not even he could adequately explain to anyone’s satisfaction. Hell, compared to likes of something like “Willy’s Wonderland,” in which he played a silent drifter dragooned into working overnight as a janitor in a condemned amusement park who ends up doing battle with an army of demonically possessed animatronic creatures, a movie in which he goes off in dogged pursuit of his beloved truffle pig sounds positively staid.

I bring all of this up now because it needs to be stressed ahead of time and as strenuously as possible that anyone planning to see “Pig” in the hopes of it being another wild Cage fest—the kind that starts off as borderline camp and quickly slips (or trips) over the border—needs to adjust those expectations immediately. While I can understand the rationale behind the trailer produced by Neon that presents it another crazy-go-nuts epic thanks to its extremely selective choice of clips, it is an approach that not only completely misrepresents the film but does it an incredible disservice at the same time by taking a genuinely powerful, deeply emotional and utterly earnest and suggesting that it is nothing more than campy weirdness. That’s right—“Pig” is one of the very best movies of the year and not only that, Cage’s performance in it constitutes one of the best and most effective performances that he has ever delivered.

As the film opens, we see a man, whom we eventually get to know as Rob (Cage) heading out into the woods with his pig in order to track down and collect valuable truffles, which he then trades with Amir (Alex Wolff), an ambitious young would-be food impresario, for basic supplies. Although Rob may look like a crazed Tad Kaczynski-type at first glance, we quickly pick up that he is more of a gentle soul, especially in his interactions with his pig. He doesn’t speak to her too much—he doesn’t speak much at all to anyone—but there is the sense of a genuine bond between Rob and his pig, the kind that any animal lover will instantly. Whatever Rob may have gone through in his past—and clearly something must have happened in order to for him to end up where his is—he seems to have achieved some measure of peace.

That peace is shattered one night when he is attacked in his cabin, knocked unconscious and discovers when he wakes up that his pig has been taken. With the aid of Amir, Rob begins the search for his big and learns that it was taken by a couple of local methheads who turned around and sold it to some rich person from the city. This inspires Rob’s return to Portland, a town that he has strong associations with that will gradually be revealed as the film goes on and he begins to confront the demons of his past. Things get dicey when it is suggested that the person responsible for the pig’s disappearance is Amir’s father, Darius, (Adam Arkin), who is the town’s gourmet kingpin who is planning on opening a new restaurant in which truffles and other such ingredients will be a key part of the menu. When Rob confronts him about this, Darius coldly offers him a hefty chunk of money to just go away, clearly not recognizing that the pig is more than just a tool or a pet to Rob. This is, of course, a mistake but I will leave it to you to discover the manner in which Rob responds.

Yes, the above description does make the film sound like it is essentially a porcine-based variation of “John Wick” with Cage stepping into Keanu Reeves’s shoes as a man who returns to his formerly violent tendencies in order to get revenge on the people who inflicted cruelty upon his beloved pet. That is pretty much the film being sold by the trailer but while director Michael Sarnoski, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Block, may well indeed have used that concept as a starting-off point and there are a number of scenes that feel as if they are going to burst out into gruesome brutality at a moments notice. However, it soon becomes apparent that this is not the kind of movie that Sarnoski and Block had in mind because it quickly goes off into more unexpectedly soulful areas. There are moments of violence to be had (at one point, Rob turns up at an underground fight club for restaurant workers and later does some ferocious damage to a car) and there is an underlying tension that is maintained up until the very end. However, this is a film that is more interested in pain than in violence and the ways that people try to cope with an unfathomable loss. As Rob goes upon his quest for his pig, we slowly begin to get a better sense of who Rob is and was—thankfully not through indigestible chunks of awkward exposition—and understand why this pig is of such great importance to him thanks to the spare but enormously effective screenplay and direction. The result is a film that sounds like it is going to be nothing more than a preposterous joke but never once comes close to going off the rails.

As for Nicolas Cage, it is no secret, of course, that he is an actor who is willing to go to wild extremes in many of his performances and when that approach fits with the material—as was the case with such projects as “Vampire’s Kiss,” “Mandy” and “The Color Out of Space,” the results can be an embrace of gonzo glory that few performers would even dare to attempt, let alone pull off successfully. What people tend to forget is that Cage can also be one of the deftest and canniest underplayers around as well, eschewing such weirdness when it doesn’t seem to be necessary. Although we are primed for the off-the-wall Cage from the first moment that we see him in his shaggy mountaineer look, it is the second approach that he utilizes in playing Rob and the results are simply extraordinary. Here is a character who is not exactly the most demonstrative of individuals on the surface but Cage’s low-key approach still manages to convey a number of thoughtful ideas about love, loss and the creative process, to name just a few of the themes that are explored through his character. There are a couple of moments when Cage gets to go for laughs but they are ones that feel natural and not like bits he has thrown in so as to amuse himself. For the most part, this is a restrained and somber performance that is absolutely hypnotic from the first moment to the last and while it probably will not have too many clips popping up on YouTube highlight reels, I know that if I were asked to compose a list of his greatest performances, this would be right near the top.

Unfortunately, because it lacks the usual histrionics that have come to identify most Cage vehicles of late—if I had to pick one of his previous efforts that this one is closest to, at least from a thematic standpoint, it would probably be “Joe,” the equally quiet and effective drama that he did with David Gordon Green a few years ago—there is the distinct possibility that those hoping for cheap laughs and meme-worthy moments are going to come away from it feeling bored and disappointed. That would be their loss because what “Pig” may lack in camp appeal, it more than makes up for in its simple exploration of humanity through the bond between a man and his pig. The result is a truly wonderful and ultimately film, although if you do see it, be prepared to find yourself forgoing bacon for the immediate future.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34467&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/12/21 23:20:34
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  16-Jul-2021 (R)

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