There seems to be a trend of films and film titles revolving around farm animals in the last 18 or so months. From Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2019/2020) to Valdmiar Johansson’s Lamb (2021) and Michael Sarnoski’s Pig (2021); each of these films places these animals at the forefront, but each one tells a vastly different story and to different avail.
Pig is a film that centres on themes of grief and loss, but it is also about acceptance and surviving. It sees a truffle hunter, Robin (played by the unsurprisingly great Nicolas Cage) have his pig companion stolen in the middle of the night while living off-grid in some cabin. This results in him setting out to find his pig with the help of Amir (Alex Wolff) who pays Robin for his truffle work.
For what it’s worth, the premise is deceptively simple as it plays on audience expectations that Robin will go out on a killing spree until his pig is found. This deception is particularly true given that the man playing Robin is Cage, who audiences almost expect will go on a killing frenzy comprised of outbursts and sadistic rage like in Mandy (2018), Color Out of Space (2019), or Vengeance: A Love Story (2017), to name a few.
While there are moments of rage bubbling beneath the surface (with the most extreme outburst seeing Cage kick the crap out of a yellow Camaro’s door), Sarnoski never goes down that predictable rabbit hole (which would be a great name for another animal film). Rather, Sarnoski uses Robin’s loss and grief as a catalyst for exploring how sometimes we can’t control what happens to us — sometimes our efforts are in vain even if we think there is a silver lining at the end of the tunnel.
What is especially interesting to note is that Robin isn’t just some weirdo who drew the short straw and is now out to exact revenge, but he is a renowned former chef whose name is uttered like a long lost legend. He’s had his share of fortune, has mingled with the city folk, and has lived under the false pretences of success that capitalism masquerades as — ultimately seeing him swap city lights for green bushland. What this approach allows Sarnoski to do is to paint capitalism as a grotesque construct that can tear down even the most successful people if they aren’t willing to adapt to the changing world around them.
There’s a particular scene in a high end restaurant where Robin — in his rugged, beat-up state — calmy rips into the chef of the restaurant (who happens to be a former intern of his) for allowing himself to forgo his dreams and settle for a world built around falsity and conformity. It is one of the many profoundly moving scenes in the film that gets to the heart of selling ones soul and settling — ultimately forgetting about what it is that we really care about. Robin asserts to that chef that “we don’t get a lot of things to really care about”; In essence, the pig and the lengths Robin goes to in order to find it, represents that pursuit for what we really care about, which is often quashed by settling.
In a sense, you’d be forgiven for thinking this film plays out somewhat semi-biographically for Cage where he sees his own past mistakes and strives to protect and salvage what he cares about, but may have ignored in the past. There’s the whole ‘fall from grace’ type approach where Robin is an esteemed chef (Cage is an esteemed actor) who disappeared from the spotlight only to re-emerge out of nowhere and still cook (act) like a pro. Heck, a character asserts to Robin that “I remember a time when your name meant something to people, Robin”.
It makes for a resounding 90 minutes that gives Cage a platform to showcase why he is among the top 10 actors of all time. Cage himself asserted in recent interviews that the acting came easy for him here because he didn’t need to act as much due to having dreams and thoughts about losing his cat — which he channelled into Robin. In this sense, Cage plays Robin with a degree of verisimilitude that many (including yours truly) will be able to relate to. Whether someone has lost an animal, a loved one, or just an inherent desire — it’s about finding what you care about and protecting it at all costs, no matter the outcome.
The comparisons between John Wick and Pig have been plentiful due to the nature of messing with one’s animal companion and then hunting down the perpetrators. However, Sarnoski’s take on the revenge storyline plays out in a resoundingly different light. Robin is the one that gets beat down (physically and mentally) throughout the whole film without so much as throwing a punch. It’s a unique take on what we might expect to have happened, but it adds a level of humanism and honesty that captures how things don’t always end up the way we want them to.
The film is a masterclass in exploring how we deal with grief and how we learn to live with it in a system that encourages people to forget about what they truly care for and move on. Nicolas Cage delivers one of his most subtle and sublime performances ever, and the result is one of the most touching, sombre and best films of the year.
Pig is streaming on Palace Home Cinema