Pig: Nicolas Cage pulls his career out of the gutter with one of the most blistering performances of his life

Directed by a man who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet, Michael Sarnoski’s Pig isn’t just one of the best movies of 2021; it’s so much more. Years from now, Pig will be recognised as the movie that introduced an entire generation to Nicolas Cage’s sheer power as a performer, and reminded the generation that came before of what it had always known.

To those of us who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, it might seem odd to learn that for the Zoomers—these are the kids who discover classic songs only after they become popular on Instagram Reels—Cage isn’t much more than a laughing stock. He’s seen not as the award-winning descendant of Hollywood royalty that he is, but as an actor who has spent an entire decade in self-imposed exile, working on whatever director-to-DVD project that could attract funding from a Russian oligarch.

But this isn’t the Cage that we knew growing up. This isn’t the man who won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and scored another nomination for Adaptation. This is the Cage who inspired an entire subplot in an episode of the television sitcom Community, where the movie geek Abed Nadir attempts to solve the greatest mystery of them all—Nicolas Cage: Good or Bad?

There are no right answers. Yes, Cage can be downright terrible in some films, but here’s the thing; he never delivers a bad performance in good ones. It’s almost as if he has a sixth sense, which kicks in the second he reads a script. It is in that moment that Cage decides whether to go full ham—no pun intended—or to rein himself in. The remarkable thing is that he is equally skilled at both.

The bad Nicolas Cage movies aren’t bad because he’s bad in them—they’d have been terrible either way. If anything, his unhinged performances in The Wicker Man and, say, Drive Angry, only made those films more interesting than they had any right to be. For instance, would you even bother about films with titles as trashy as Kill Chain, Primal, and Between Worlds had Cage’s face not been plastered on their posters? Probably not. But simply out of curiosity for what sort of manic mood he is in, people watch even his direct-to-Wallmart titles.

Unsuspecting audiences might watch the trailer for Pig, and very reasonably assume that it is another one of his bailout movies. The actor has been burdened by debt so dire, even selling off his mint Superman comic, dinosaur skull, and several mansions didn’t ease his troubles. Based on the trailer alone—which, in fairness, identifies him as ‘Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage’—you could be led to believe that Pig is some sort of bonkers John Wick ripoff in which a hillbilly hermit goes on a rampage across town after his beloved truffle hog is kidnapped by unsavoury elements.

The premise recalls the realism of The Bicycle Thieves and the fantasy of a Grimm’s fairytale. But Pig lures you in with its revenge plot set-up only to knock you over the head with the raw emotion of a Pixar film.

Even if it isn’t immediately clear that Pig isn’t the sort of nonsense that Cage has been doling out on a bi-monthly basis for the last 10 years, the movie is deliberately enigmatic for at least an hour. Until the restaurant scene.

Those of you that have seen the film would know exactly what I’m talking about. At around the halfway mark, the hunt for the missing pig takes Cage’s character Rob and his sidekick Amir to the slickest restaurant in all of Portland (which Amir’s dad owns). They’ve heard there’s some new truffle dishes on the menu.

It is in this scene—perhaps the most devastating of the year—that the layers are peeled off of not just Rob, but the movie itself. When Rob fingers the fancy food in front of him—an attempt at misdirection by Sarnoski and co-writer Vanessa Block, who want us to continue believing that he is an uncultured man—Rob is secretly studying its texture. He asks to see the chef. And when Rob confronts him about his missing pig, he is met with bemused silence. Then, Amir prods, “Tell him who you are.”

The table, as it were, has now been set. We learn that in his past life, before he, like Cage, went into a self-imposed exile, Rob was the hottest chef in town. He went off the grid to deal with the death of his wife. Pig isn’t about a pig at all; it’s a movie about grief, and trauma.

And in these 10-odd minutes, Cage delivers a performance so immaculate that if he isn’t nominated for an Oscar, it will be the greatest injustice of its kind since Sylvester Stallone was snubbed for Creed. When you expect him to unleash, he pulls back. Having put the topic of the missing pig on the back-burner for a moment, Rob proceeds to interrogate the chef—a former employee of his named Derek—about why he chooses to cook dispassionate dishes. The line of questioning sends poor Derek into an existential crisis.

“They’re not real,” Rob says, leaning in for a close-up. “You get that, right? None of it is real. The critics aren’t real, the customers aren’t real. Because this,” he gestures at the half-eaten dish in front of him, “isn’t real. You aren’t real.” By the end of the chat, Derek is reduced to a slobbering mess.

“We don’t have a lot of things to really care about,” Rob says, his eyes betraying his hurt. He stares at Derek in silence, but your mind fills in the gaps: “Find what you care about, and stick with it till the bitter end.” Having broken Derek like an expert CIA interrogator, Rob circles back: “Who has my pig?” And Derek, as expected, squeals. The scene foreshadows the Ratatouille-inspired one that comes right at the end, in which Rob adopts a similar tactic to convert a man who means him harm. On both occasions, his kindness shines through. Rob is a man who could easily have been consumed by bitterness, especially after the sorry hand that life has dealt him. But he knows better. He knows what’s ‘real’.

It’s the sort of transcendental experience that you hope for every time you sit down for a new movie, especially if you watch over 300 a year and do this for a living. But so often, like life, movies have a tendency of letting you down. Scenes like this, however, renew your faith. They make you forget whatever doubts you ever had about the state of the film industry, and whatever misgivings you’ve developed over the years about where it is headed. For a couple of hours, you submit yourself completely—like a junkie chasing an adrenaline rush. The only difference is that this won’t hurt you; at the very least, you’ll grunt in appreciation, and at best, you’ll squeal with joy.

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

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