Pig sure looked like a riff on John Wick. A downbeat riff, sure, but a riff nonetheless: after his place is broken into and his beloved pet stolen, a lonely, gruff widower goes on a warpath through his former industry to get what’s his. The similarities go down to the details. People gasp in awe at the mere mention of the protagonist’s name, businesses serve as fronts for underground organizations, and there’s even a sentimental recording of a dead wife. But when our hero has his first opportunity to fight—a moment that Wick would undoubtedly seize—Pig reveals itself to be an entirely different beast.

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The eponymous pig is a truffle pig, property of and companion to Robin (Nicolas Cage), a forager who absconded to the Oregon wilderness after the passing of his wife. His only consistent human connection is with Amir (Alex Wolff), a young, overzealous food-industry-mogul-wannabe who buys the truffles that Robin’s pig sniffs out. Pig writer/director Michael Sarnoski—in his feature debut here—allows us a peek at his cards during an early interaction between Robin and Amir. The opening scenes with Robin and his pig are slow, quiet, and awash in muted colors, but Amir pulls into the frame in a bright yellow Camaro, punctuating the timeless wilderness with roaring cylinders and modern parlance. Robin treats their transaction like it’s the worst part of his day, not knowing that the night will bring worse: unknown assailants bursting into his cabin, kidnapping his pig, and knocking him unconscious until the sunrise wakes him to a world of loss.

With few other options, Robin recruits Amir—his only means of transportation—and heads to Portland to rescue his pig, seemingly with a lead in mind. The drive feels like a journey down the River Styx. There’s something sinister about the way Sarnoski shoots Portland: maybe it’s how dimly lit the foreground is, letting thick, opaque darkness bleed onto civilized city streets; maybe it’s Alexis Grapsas’ and Philip Klein’s melancholic score, blanketing the proceedings in low moods. Pig’s Portland feels like Pinterest’s dark underbelly—evil hiding behind quaint.

Production design plays a significant role in the film. Sarnoski’s use of contrast is hinted at when Amir first interrupts Robin’s peaceful existence, but it’s doubly potent when the two reach Portland. Back in the forest, Robin’s cabin was cluttered, dusty, lived-in—a roof over his head but its walls merely literal, the warmth of nature pouring in through the crack under the door. Portland, conversely, is symmetrical, sterilized, and sanitized. The walls are chrome, airtight, impenetrable to even sunlight. And Robin—bearded, beaten, and bloody, dressed in clothes that go nicely with dirt—sticks out like Amir’s yellow Camaro against the moonlit tree line.

When Robin and Amir descend underground, infiltrating a block of Portland that was paved over and repurposed as a fight club for restaurant workers, the contrast between Robin and Amir’s worlds comes off as the tension between pre- and post-gentrified Portland—a losing battle similar to one fought by the restaurant workers of Fight Club. It’s in this underground union that Robin has the opportunity to beat information out of someone, but abstains, initiating a striking scene where he allows himself to be mercilessly beaten until he earns the information out of sheer respect. This is when Pig casts off its likeness to any blockbuster. Robin is no John Wick.

He’s a cleaver—expertly wielded by Nicolas Cage—cutting through the flimsy façade of social contracts that prop up Portland’s food scene and the city at large. The focus in Cage’s face, tone, and body language is forged by fire—you can see the burn wounds in his eyes. They singe everything deserving of his glare. But he’s not violent, not in any physical sense. Sarnoski’s approach to his story is analogous to Cage’s performance: focused, intense, and palpably intentional, but never delivered with blunt force. Pig bubbles up like lava, burning away the importance we bestowed on anything less personal than the intimacy between man and nature. The film, ultimately, is concerned with what’s left when the lava cools. When Robin, explaining his love for his pig to Amir, mutters, “we don’t get a lot of things to really care about”, he’s not just stressing his disdain for a modernized world—he’s preaching the gospel of what little we have.

Pig’s grip on what matters is so strong that it’s practically an act of spiritual defiance. In a subdued but indescribably moving scene where Robin indulges in the little that matters to him, Sarnoski melds score, movement, and silent performances into a transfixing power. It’s one of the most tender scenes in contemporary cinema. Sarnoski, again turning contrast into art, shoots the scene so lovingly, so smoothly, with such rich texture—the sinister energy of preceding scenes just melts away. From then until the final shot, the film is resolute in its pensive, profound, and affecting purpose. Pig asks us to cast our pearls before swine because the pearls don’t really matter. Swine—living and breathing with us on this earth—do.

★★★★★   (5/5)