Directed By A Guy Who Doesn’t Even Have A Wikipedia Page Yet Michael Sarnoski’s Pig Isn’t Alone one of the best movies of 2021; it’s so much more. In years to come, Pig will be recognized as the film that introduced an entire generation to the sheer power of Nicolas Cage as an artist, and reminded the generation before that what it had always known.
For those of us who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, it may seem strange to hear that for the Zoomers – these are the kids who only discover classic songs after they become popular on Instagram Reels – Cage not much more is a joke then. He’s not seen as the award-winning descendant of Hollywood royalty that he is, but as an actor who spent an entire decade in self-imposed exile, working on every director-to-DVD project that could attract funding from a Russian oligarch.
But this isn’t the Cage we knew growing up. This is not the man who won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and scored another nomination for Adaptation. This is the Cage that inspired a whole subplot in an episode of the TV sitcom Community, where movie geek Abed Nadir tries to solve the greatest mystery of them all: Nicolas Cage: Good or Bad?
There are no right answers. Yes, Cage can be downright awful in some movies, but here’s the thing; he never gives a bad performance in good ones. It’s almost as if he has a sixth sense, which kicks in as soon as he reads a script. It’s then that Cage decides whether to go full ham – no pun intended – or restrain himself. The remarkable thing is that he is equally adept at both.
The bad Nicolas Cage movies aren’t bad because he’s bad at them – they would have been terrible anyway. His unhinged performances in The Wicker Man and, shall we say, Drive Angry, at least made those films more interesting than they deserved to be. For example, would you care about movies with titles as sloppy as Kill Chain, Primal, and Between Worlds if Cage’s face wasn’t taped to their posters? Probably not. But just out of curiosity about what kind of manic mood he is, people even watch his direct-to-Wallmart titles.
Unsuspecting audiences could watch Pig’s trailer and reasonably assume it’s another one of his rescue movies. The actor has been plagued with debts so large that even the sale of his mint Superman comic, dinosaur skull and several mansions did not alleviate his problems. Based on the trailer alone — which frankly identifies him as ‘Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage’ — you might believe that Pig is some sort of crazy John Wick ripoff in which a hillbilly recluse rages around town after his lover. truffle pig is kidnapped by unsavory elements.
The premise recalls the realism of The Bicycle Thieves and the fantasy of a Grimm fairy tale. But Pig lures you in with his revenge scheme to knock you on the head with the raw emotion of a Pixar movie.
Even if it’s not immediately obvious that Pig isn’t the kind of nonsense that Cage has been spouting bimonthly for the past 10 years, the film is deliberately puzzling for at least an hour. To the restaurant scene.
Those of you who have seen the movie know exactly what I’m talking about. Halfway through, the hunt for the missing pig takes Cage’s character Rob and his sidekick Amir to the slickest restaurant in all of Portland (which is Amir’s father). They have heard that there are new truffle dishes on the menu.
It’s in this scene – arguably the most devastating of the year – that the layers are peeled off not only from Rob, but from the film itself. When Rob fingers up the fancy food—an attempted deception by Sarnoski and co-writer Vanessa Block, who want us to continue to believe he’s an uncivilized man—Rob secretly studies its texture. He asks to speak to the chief. And when Rob confronts him about his missing pig, he falls silent in stunned silence. Then Amir insists, “Tell him who you are.”
The table is now, as it were, set. We learn that in his past life, before going into exile like Cage, Rob was the best chef in town. He left the job to cope with the death of his wife. Pig is not about a pig at all; it is a film about grief and trauma.
And in these ten minutes, Cage delivers a performance so flawless that if he’s not nominated for an Oscar, it will be the greatest injustice of its kind since Sylvester Stallone was turned down for Creed. If you expect him to let go, he will pull back. After putting the topic of the missing pig on the back burner for a while, Rob moves on to question the chef – a former employee of his name Derek – about why he chooses to cook sober dishes. The line of interrogation puts poor Derek in an existential crisis.
“They’re not real,” Rob says, bending over for a close-up. ‘You get that, don’t you? None of it is real. The critics aren’t real, the customers aren’t real. Because this,’ he gestures to the half-eaten dish in front of him, ‘is not real. You’re not real.” By the end of the chat, Derek is reduced to a drooling mess.
“We don’t have many things to really worry about,” Rob says, his eyes betraying his pain. He stares silently at Derek, but your mind fills in the gaps: “Find what you care about and stick with it until the bitter end.” After breaking down Derek as an expert CIA interrogator, Rob circles back, “Who’s got my pig?” And Derek, as expected, screams. The scene foreshadows the Ratatouille-inspired scene that comes right at the end, where Rob uses a similar tactic to convert a man who wants to harm him. On both occasions his kindness shines through. Rob is a man who could have easily been consumed with bitterness, especially after the sad hand life has given him. But he knows better. He knows what ‘real’ is.
It’s the kind of transcendental experience you hope for every time you sit down to a new movie, especially if you watch over 300 a year and do it for a living. But so often, just like life, movies tend to let you down. Scenes like this, however, renew your faith. They make you forget all the doubts you’ve ever had about the state of the film industry, and all the doubts you’ve developed over the years about where it’s headed. For a few hours you give yourself completely – like a junkie chasing an adrenaline rush. The only difference is that this won’t hurt you; at the very least you will growl with appreciation, and at best scream with joy.
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with a special focus on context, craft and characters. Because there is always something to fixate on once the dust settles.