True confessions time. Be honest. We ALL first heard tell of this Nicolas Cage project “Pig” and thought, “Nic goes John Wick over a truffle pig.” Scan the Internet for postings of the first trailer to Michael Sarnoski’s film. Just about every comment had a chortle over the vengeance thriller B-movie possibilities that presented.
But dark as it can be, “Pig,” owes more to “Northern Exposure” than it does any generic thriller, Keanu Reeves A-picture of Nicolas Cage B-movie. It’s a fictional variation on the longer-in-production/first-in-theaters “Truffle Hunters” documentary. This is the story of a hermit who hunts for truffles in remote Oregon with his truffle-snuffling hog his only companion.
Cage is understated, intense and haunted in this seriocomic search for a stolen companion, a man on a quixotic quest through the dark underbelly of foodie Portlandia. Ever few years, the guy reminds us of why he won an Oscar and “Pig” is this decade’s “Joe.”
He lives a Spartan, unwashed existence in an off-the-grid shack deep in the Northwest forest. His only friend is his sow, whom he dotes on when they’re not off hunting pricey, edible fungi. He cooks up some of what they dig up and shares it with the tail-wagging pig, who may not have a name but is as expressive and devoted as any beloved dog.
A battered cassette that he slaps into his ancient boom box suggests his name is “Robin,” and whatever past life he lived, these days he’s down in the dirt, sniffing and even tasting it to get an idea of where the truffles hide.
His buyer (Alex Wolff) is a callow, sarcastic creep in a Camaro, rolling up once a week, bitching about “no cell phone” but offering to set the hermit up with “one of those (propane-fired) camp showers.” The kid may know something of how Robin ended up here, but he doesn’t understand it. And he doesn’t push it, because he has a good thing going.
Right up to the night when locals thugs bust in, club Robin and steal his pig. He is forced to revive his long-mothballed pickup, forced to visit civilization for the first time in years, forced to bring Amir (Wolff) in on his quest.
No cops. No trips to a gun shop. No bloody oaths and threats. “I just want my pig back.”
Thus does the man who eschewed civilized Portland and all its wonders drag Mr. “This isn’t really MY Problem” into his quest, meeting back-to-nature stoners and visiting underworld bumfights involving not just homeless folk, but kitchen staff in the city’s fey, foodie-favored fine-dining eateries.
The script, co-written by Sarnoski and Vanessa Block, gives Cage a few “Nic Cage” moments of rage. I mean, the man was mugged and his pig was pignapped, after all. But “Pig” hangs on Cage’s soulful intensity in the part, a man who used to be somebody who, as one contemptuous old acquaintance hisses “doesn’t exist” now. “You have no value.”
But Robin knows “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about” in this life. And he’s leading by example, showing others that in the long scheme on time, in a place “overdue” for a “city flattened” earthquake or volcanic apocalypse, he’s figured out what has value. We don’t have to agree. We just have to acknowledge where his Zen quest has taken him.
The biggest laugh comes from the reaction of an equally high-mileage fellow truffler at the news of the theft of the pig. “Mac” swears LOUDLY, drops what she’s doing, mid-truffle auction, and stomps off to get some answers and threaten the wrath of God. Damned if she isn’t played by Gretchen Corbett, James Garner’s lawyer/lady friend on “The Rockford Files.”
“Pig” is meant to leave a faintly bittersweet aftertaste. Quests can be fruitless, personal “history” can retain its mysteries and wry, deadpan commentary on foodie culture, “molecular gastronomy” and whatever else sucks the joy out of “The Joy of Cooking” doesn’t make this a comedy any more than a tale of bearded vengeance on the march.
It’s just touching in its approach to the subject, filling in the blanks on the sorts of fellows who truffle hunt, something “The Truffle Hunters” left out. But the human to truffle-hunting companion connection the documentary showed is writ large in “Pig.”
If, like most casual film fans, you’ve skipped the decades of Nicolas Cage’s B and C movies that he fills his every waking moment filming, maybe you won’t be as shocked at the layered tenderness of this performance, with just the occasional reminder, thanks to the actor’s on-screen baggage, of how this saga could turn violent and vengeful.
Final true confession? I’d totally like to see that movie as well. Maybe the sequel?
MPA Rating: R, violence, profanity
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff and Adam Arkin.
Credits: Directed by Michael Sarnoski, script by Vanessa Block and Michael Sarnoski. A Neon release.
Running time: 1:32