A movie that focuses on a man’s love for his pig seems a setup for laughs. Add that the man, Robin (Rob) Feld, is played by long-haired, thickly-bearded Nicolas Cage, and you settle in for an hour and a half of hammy slapstick. In Pig (2021), first-time director Michael Sarnoski flirts with comedy and structures the story as a revenge fantasy—with a twist. Pig moves toward a Pauline climax, rather than a bloodbath: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him” and “Overcome evil with good.”
From the first seconds, Sarnoski establishes a deliciously understated, contemplative mood. Pig opens with an extended shot of flowing water—no shore, no music, just water and its rippling voice. Rob is washing an iron skillet in an Oregon river. He looks as if he hasn’t bathed in months, perhaps years, as he trudges through a majestic pine forest. Rob, we learn, lives with his pig, which he uses to hunt for truffles in the woods. We watch Rob’s hands knead a crust, then chop mushrooms and sauté them over an open flame. While he sits on his cabin porch slowly eating his rustic mushroom tart, he feeds the leftovers to his truffle-hunting companion. Stretching out on a saggy cot for the night, Rob tells the pig not to worry about the yipping coyotes. He falls asleep reaching out for it. We can see from Rob’s solitude, his posture, his bedraggled appearance, his somnambulant movements that his soul is shattered, and we get a hint of what he’s lost when he listens to—and then quickly shuts off—a cassette recording of a woman’s giggling voice.
Each of the three parts of Pig bears a food title: “Rustic Mushroom Tart,” “Mom’s French Toast and Deconstructed Scallops,” and “A Bird, a Bottle, a Salted Baguette.” Rob is on the fringes of the foodie world; he keeps himself alive by trading his truffles for flour and canned goods with Amir (Alex Wolff), who supplies rare fungi to high-end restaurants in Portland. Meals punctuate the film—Rob eats with his pig at his cabin; Amir fixes Rob breakfast; Amir and Rob have lunch at “Eurydice,” a Portland restaurant run by the experimental Chef Finway; and the film ends with a last supper that Rob prepares for Amir’s father Darius (Adam Arkin). Rob used to be at the heart of the Portland food scene, but he disappeared into the wilderness fifteen years before the film begins. Despite his long absence, he’s still legendary, his name a talisman.
Though Sarnoski’s camera lingers over meals and their preparation, the film is largely a darkly comic parody of gourmet affectations. Oregon’s truffle trade is dominated by competing mushroom mafiosos. At the beginning of Pig, one of the most ruthless of them beats Rob and kidnaps the pig. Amir drives Rob into Portland to try to recover it. At the uber-trendy Portland restaurant, Eurydice, the waitress brings Rob and Amir two scallops floating in a bed of huckleberry foam served in a glass globe full of smoke from Douglas fir cones. In one of the film’s best scenes, Rob interrogates his erstwhile employee, Chef Finway—whom he addresses as “Derek”—about his pig’s whereabouts. Eager and ingratiating, Derek explains his restaurant’s concept, the deconstructive effort to make familiar food foreign in order to expand appreciation of food as a whole. It’s exciting, cutting-edge; critics and patrons love it, and so do investors. When Rob punctures Derek’s enthusiasm by asking, “Do you like this food? Do you like cooking it?,” Derek can only sputter, “Everybody loves it.” Rob reminds him of his earlier ambition to open an English pub, and exposes the unreality of Derek’s efforts to please critics and investors who don’t care about him. Derek’s smile stays put, but his face fills with terror as he stares into the void at the heart of his career. Foodiness may be nothing more than the quest to secure a reputation for foodiness. Caught up in culinary concepts, foodies forget eating.
The scene with Chef Finway indicates how Pig offers a twist on the revenge film. Rob is relentless in his search for his kidnapped pig. For much of the film, Rob looks like a typical revenge hero—his face purpled with bruises and dried blood, his clothes stained and never changed. But all the blood is his own. He rarely raises his voice, much less his fists. Rob’s penetrating questions dismantle Derek, leaving him more beaten than any beating could. I don’t want to spoil the climax. Suffice it to say, Rob’s revenge is not served cold. When he eventually finds the kidnapper, he ends up eliciting a confession from the contrite culprit not by threats or torture, but by preparing a meal that replicates the happiest moment of the kidnapper’s failed marriage.
The film closes with Rob back at the bend of the river, washing his bloody face for the first time. His pig is gone, a fresh wound added to Rob’s accumulated wounds. But his time in Portland has led to a small breakthrough. Rob can find truffles even without his pig, and Amir will return to pick them up as Rob’s friend. In the film’s last moments, Rob turns on the cassette again. This time, he is able to listen to the whole thing—as the woman, whom we now know is “Lori” (Cassandra Violet), sings a heart-rending folk cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” recorded years before for Rob’s birthday.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute, and organizing pastor of Immanuel Reformed Church in Birmingham, Alabama.