(SPOILERS) Per Metacritic, Pig was among critics’ 2021 Top Ten lists’ ten most-mentioned films. Of course, so was The Green Knight, so the statistic doesn’t necessarily mean very much, except to suggest it wouldn’t have been so outlandish had it been granted a slot among this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees. Rather than, say, Nightmare Alley. That it didn’t, again, isn’t necessarily indicative of anything, but one has to consider that its essential ethos is antithetical to everything Hollywood espouses. Pig can’t even boast a WEF-ratified subtext like last year’s winner Nomadland.
After all, Nicolas Cage’s Rob Feld may have gone off grid, but he has a home – he owns something – and he’s happy. Or he was, in a kind of miserabilist, get-by way, until they stole his pig. And his attachment to said porker – which may be a filthy animal, but Rob isn’t in such a commendable state of hygiene himself – is far from some kind of statement regarding the merits of lab-grown meat, as his later preparation of a particularly taste buds-tantalising chicken dish attests. Rather – and some have directed kneejerk barbs at this, saying it’s all very well, but it isn’t all that, doubtless in order to rationalise that Porsche and pay cheque while being deeply unhappy and unappreciated underneath – Pig offers a statement about the essential emptiness and meaninglessness of the prescribed societal paradigm, of everyday living, and particularly urban living and concomitant wage slavery and value system.
Of course, Rob’s withdrawal from the society is preceded by loss (of his wife); before this, he was a revered Portland chef, and by association a part of the very societal strata he now perceives as empty. Albeit, that doesn’t explain his almost xen-like inner resources. Such as his memory banks, whereby he is readily serving a dish previously prepared more than a decade ago or pointing out to a former employee, now a chef himself (David Knell’s Derek) how redundant and superficial his current choices are. That scene is, in many ways, the crux of the movie, deconstructing the façade that “isn’t real. You aren’t real”. Rob tells Derek, a chef of haute cuisine (local ingredients cooked to make the dish seem foreign), “You live your life for them and they don’t even see it”.
In his low-key yet perceptive manner, Rob’s actions in pursuit of his porker systematically break down defences. Accompanying him on his quest is ingredients supplier Amir (Alex Wolff), whose father Darius (Adam Arkin) is a kind of godfather of the Portland culinary world. Darius may not threaten Rob’s life, but he promises to butcher his pig if he doesn’t give up the quest (It turns out Mr Piggy has already expired). He also affirms the essential inhumanity of urban existence and that Rob was wise to retreat to the woods (“There’s really nothing here for most of us”). And yet, as some wizard of the palate, the same meal that meant so much to Darius and his wife reverberates within and causes him to breakdown in grief, so attesting to the feeling individual long-since buried somewhere deep down (notably, Derek’s restaurant is Eurydice, whom Orpheus tried to retrieve from the underworld; Darius’ wife is still alive, comatose in a care facility, even though Amir claimed she committed suicide).
In the course of his journey, Rob has visited an underground chefs’ fight club run by old associate Edgar (Darius Pierce). The pointless savagery of the place, itself suggestive of sinister subterranean networks and veiled activities, the stuff of conspiracy lore, is underlined by Darius’ limited appreciation of individual worth: “Now, you have no value. You don’t even exist anymore. You don’t even exist”. It’s a direct inversion of Rob’s understanding, where the surface apparel of success is meaningless and false; Rob may not "exist", but he is "real".
It’s probably a little too easy to make Pig’s philosophical underpinnings sound didactic, but writer-director Michael Sarnoski’s measured, underplayed unfolding is everything in this regard. That, and a supremely affecting Cage performance (“Why do all this?” asks Amir when he learns Rob can find the truffles on his own. “I love her” he replies). The temptation with this kind of tale would be to end in a pat or affirmative place, but Sarnoski remains subdued, allowing simply the confirmation that Rob will continue to work with Amir (and a vague sense of coming to terms as he is now able to listen to a tape his wife recorded). After all, he may as well continue until the inevitable apocalypse (as he has detailed to Amir, the entire area will be engulfed by a tsunami following a massive earthquake in the area).
The general suggestion regarding Cage’s slide into frequently indiscriminate low-budget moviemaking over the past decade has been financial issues of some description, but it’s notable how many other actors/stars have taken loosely similar courses: your John Travolta, your John Cusack, your – most infamously, such that the Razzies took particular notice this year – Bruce Willis*, and latterly Mel Gibson. Could it be, as disparate as some of them may be on the political spectrum, that they have developed common ground in discontent or unease at the asking price of remaining a fully paid-up member of the Hollywood elite, such that the only option is to work, like Rob, largely “off grid”?
Cage has fared relatively better than most of those peers, thanks to a smattering of well-regarded indies; he received particular plaudits for overrated psychedelic splatterfests Mandy and Color Out of Space. Rob Feld deserves to sit next to his Spider-Man Noir voice work as one of the pre-eminent later period Cage performances, though. It seems Pig was nearly an hour longer, but cut as the distributors considered it too long; whether or not Sarnoski agreed to the pruning reluctantly, it honestly it feels like a good length. Let’s hope his signing up to A Quiet Place spin-off doesn’t mean he’ll forsake further self-originated projects in the future.
* (31/3) With Bruce, it appears aphasia may have something to do with the situation, although we can see these choices gradually creeping in as far back as 2011.