Film & TV

Pig — Nicolas Cage’s Poetic Tale about Moral Fungus

Nicolas Cage in Pig. (NEON)
Locally sourced corruption in the Pacific Northwest

Something’s gone wrong in the Pacific Northwest that the mainstream media doesn’t report, but it comes through in Pig, the clever new Nicolas Cage picture that moves like a slow-burn action movie but turns out to also be an insightful cultural anecdote.

Cage plays Robin Feld, a modern-day hermit living off the grid — a rejection of nearby cutting-edge Portland, Ore. — by supplying the city’s high-end restaurants with pricey truffles foraged by his only partner, a russet-colored pig. Writer-director Michael Sarnoski uses the metaphor for man at his basic subsistence level to reflect on coarsened modern society. Robin is a climate-paranoid survivalist, waiting for the apocalypse to destroy civilization, but he has also retreated from personal, tragic loss. When his animal cohort is stolen by a restaurant-industry rival, Robin returns to the city with unfinished business.

Sarnoski’s debut benefits from modesty, which includes Cage’s subdued performance. Robin’s internalized craziness (he’s shaggy like Tom Waits in the prospector episode of the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scraggs) controls his antisocial reflexes. He makes the effort to keep hostilities to a minimum. For the urban expedition, he enlists his buyer Amir (Alex Wolff), and their uneasy relationship reveals each man’s dilemma — familial abandonment and individual masochism. Their father–son parallel also indicates generational political differences. This is the progressive Northwest of greedy parents and their spoiled progeny who have no sense of their privilege or their moral decay. You can feel that topsy-turvy Joe/Hunter Biden sense of something gone wrong; the roles of weak and strong, hero and villain or coward, are upside down yet still at play in Sarnoski’s timely concept.

The film’s shift from the woods to the city distills all the anti-capitalism issues that were the fraudulent basis of Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. Portland, now synonymous with Antifa revolt and anarchist autonomous zones alongside imperious bourgeois lifestyles, seems through-the-looking-glass. Hipster Amir can escort wild-man Robin by using an easy password: “He’s Buddhist.”

Portland turns out to be the perfect setting for Pig’s Millennial noir. Its contradictions call for daylight exposure, as in the key scene at Eurydice, a chic molecular-gastronomy restaurant. The effusive chef brags, “It’s cutting-edge. It’s very exciting everybody loves it: Scotch Eggs with honey cream mustard!” And Robin answers, “You’re not real. None of this is real.” He cuts through society’s self-deception. We have no equivalent for that Eighties term “Die, yuppie scum!” to apply to today’s Democratic Socialist diners. This ingenious study of locally sourced moral fungus might be the closest we get. (The only let-down is an underground bare-knuckle boxing episode that evokes David Fincher’s Fight Club, a yuppie-scum fantasy as irrelevant as yesteryear’s Oxydol commercials.)

Sarnoski divides the film into three sections, each named for restaurant menu items. His conceit recalls the 2015 film Burnt in which Bradley Cooper played a high-end chef like Robin’s own legend. But Burnt’s theme of haves and have-nots (from a script by Steven Knight) was dramatized without highlighting the political alliances of greed and power that distinguish Pig. (Think of Gavin Newsom at the French Laundry, and the film’s title reverberates.)

Politics are not always explicit in movies, and some filmgoers prefer it that way. Cage’s last significant film was Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad, a quasi-political prophecy about social chaos and the damaged family unit. Cage has, again, chosen well (as with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance). In this subtly political extension of Liam Neeson’s Taken and Mel Gibson’s Bloodfather, Cage explores the lonely suffering of those people who realize they’ve been betrayed. Sarnoski and Cage have fashioned a quiet piece of political poetry.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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