What would you get if you crossed John Wick with The Truffle Hunters? In his feature debut, American director Michael Sarnoski has the answer to a question that no one asked. As a result, Pig offers something strangely tender and even sometimes lyrical, wrapped up in the trappings of a noirish thriller that is as much a satire on the meaning of value and social status as it is a straightforward revenge film.
The comparison with John Wick is an immediately obvious one – a brooding loner retired from the outside world has his beloved pet taken from him (here swapping Wick’s puppy for a truffle pig), inspiring him to go on a single-minded quest to find what was stolen. Curiously, Pig also comes hot on the heels of the aforementioned The Truffle Hunters, a romantic documentary about mushroom digger-uppers and their dogs, set among the lush forests of Northern Italy. In terms of tone and form, Pig and The Truffle Hunters couldn’t be different, but it’s a rather lovely happenstance that in being released so close together, each offers a strange emotional juxtaposition to the other. Visually, too, Pig has more in common with The Truffle Hunters, its early scenes in particular awash in earthy brown tones and close ups that unify both Rob’s (Nicolas Cage) and his pig’s perspectives and their relationship with the land.
Cage starring as former chef turned truffle hunter Rob is the big draw here, though long time fans of his scenery-chewing excesses will find a very different performer here. Brooding and contemplative, this is perhaps the quietest that Cage has ever been. It’s a haunting, captivating performance, each encounter on his quest to find his pig layering pathos upon tension. Violence hangs in the air of every scene, yet with the exception of a couple of eruptions, it remains resolutely out of frame. Rob’s tangle of long hair and a knotty beard ironically recall Joaquin Phoenix’s damaged mercenary Joe in You Were Never Really Here but he is shorn of that character’s capacity to mete out violent retribution on others. Indeed, to return briefly to that other revenge film, Rob is like the anti John Wick: just as relentlessly single-minded but with his pain turned inwards, not out.
Rob is not without agency, however. His quest brings him into the purview with the lower and upper echelons of Portland society, like a raggedy Phillip Marlowe. And like Marlowe, Rob has a few pithy observations to make about the hypocrisy and pretension of the society he has shunned. In one of the film’s most effective scenes, Rob destroys one of his former sous chefs, now running a fancy but vapid restaurant, by reminding him of his former dream of running a pub. Later, in Pig’s emotional climax, Rob confronts the person responsible for the pig theft by simply cooking him a meal. John Wick and Joe navigate their world through violence, Marlowe navigates his through observation and deduction, but it is through emotional perception and honesty that Rob traverses his. Bloody retribution is hinted at but ultimately withheld, denying us the easy catharsis that screen violence often denotes. True catharsis comes – if at all – not through the barrel of a gun but from Rob’s ability to see through his adversaries and strip them of their imagined outer selves.