Michael Sarnoski’s “Pig” is about love and loss along the lines of a minor Ancient Greek legend. Sarnoski’s debut feature film, co-written with Vanessa Block, isn’t the family-friendly “Babe” reset in Portland. This is R-rated film (language and violence) plunges into the dingy depths of what one hopes is an imaginary Portland and the pig is what sets it all into motion.
With the craze for Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, having faded, few Americans really know pigs. Once the darlings of the exotic pet set, the cute, cuddly little pigs could top off at 110 lbs–not easy to contain, exercise and tote around. The pig in “Pig,” is a lovely chestnut brown porker, fuzzy and clean. The animal is owned by a once-famous chef, Robin “Rob” Feld (Nicolas Cage), who now gone full hermit, making a living by hunting truffles which the pig helps forage. The jaunty fellow grunts and digs with a tufted tail hanging in a lazy inverted u-shape to the right. Rob listens to an old tape, made for his birthday.
The film is broken up into three parts, with all the titles food related.
Part I: Rustic Mushroom Tart
Man and pig wander through verdant forests in search of the precious truffles. Once back in the neat and orderly cabin, Rob breaks an egg into the center of a pile of flour, hand mixing it into a dough. This will be the rustic (no pie pan) mushroom tart. Another man drive up in a car, Amir (Alex Wolff). He’s young and new the luxury ingredients supplier business. Rob and the pig are the mainstay of Amir’s fledgling business and Amir is Rob’s lifeline into the outside world, bringing him supplies.
Others hoping to cash in on the truffle-seeking porcine stage a hermitage-invasion and the precious porcine is pig-napped. Amir helps Rob and they immediately catch the culprits–drugs addicts looking to score some quick cash. The pig has already changed hands. The unidentified man with the cash takes the porker to Portland.
Rob reaches out to old friends. One has been dead for 10 years because Rob has been buried away in the woods for 15. Yet he knows some secrets still exist in hidden Portland, like a peculiar illegal fight club run by Edgar (Darius Pierce). Edgar has a lead: Eurydice
Part II: Mom’s French Toast & Deconstructed Scallops
Amir has a connection to Rob. During his parents’ desperately unhappy marriage, his parents were the happiest after dinner at Rob’s restaurant. A man, Derek (David Knell), who was briefly employed by Rob but fired for overcooking the pasta is the head chef at Eurydice, but Rob knows Derek’s original dream was to run a pub. Rob warns Derek about selling out: “You live your life for them and they don’t even see you.”
From Derek, Rob learns that Amir is unintentionally involved in the pig-napping.
Part III: A Bird, a Bottle, a Salted Baguette
The third act brings our resolution and this tale doesn’t have a happy ending. The pig, which reportedly wasn’t friendly having bitten Cage several times during the filming, is not really what the film is about.
From the odd name of Derek’s restaurant, it would seem the film gives us variations of Orpheus. Amir’s father, Darius (Adam Arkin), lost his wife to suicide. The cassette tape was made by Rob’s wife, Lori, and Portland is filled with memories of her–the house where they lived, the bottles of wine that they collected and the crypt where she was laid to rest.
In the Greek myth, a talented musician named Orpheus had a wife, Eurydice, who died after being bitten by a viper. Unable to accept her death, Orpheus travels to the Underworld and gains the sympathy of Hades and his bride, Persephone, who herself was forcibly taken to Hades as a reluctant bride. Surely, Persephone wonders about what a voluntary marriage might have been like. Hades makes a deal. Orpheus may return with Eurydice following him, but he must not look back at her until they have left the Underworld and fully entered the world of men. Orpheus looks back too soon and briefly sees Eurydice who descends back down into the Underworld. The lovers will not be reunited until Orpheus’ death.
There are different ways to interpret Orpheus’ quest. Was Orpheus a coward for not following Eurydice to the Underworld? Or was he a romantic but impatient lover?
Darius’ wife could be Eurydice and yet what does Darius have to charm the gods of death? Rob has forsaken his legendary skills and left the life he knew with his wife. He is not dead but the dead hold him captive.
The approach is low-key, even with Cage’s performance. There’s something meditative in Rob’s immersion in the great green woods, but we don’t see the suffering of the cold and damp either. Cage’s Rob doesn’t display that patented Cage rage or otherwise well-known strained histrionics. His anger simmers into a rolling bubbling boil, but he’s lost something central to his life. He loved once and now all the love he has is a truffle-snuffling pig. Samoski’s “Pig” doesn’t go to great lengths to make the titular pig “Babe” lovable.
I hesitated before viewing this film so soon after the death of my beloved rough collie, Kirisame. If for you, a dog is just a dog, then I doubt you’ll understand the depths of love one can have for a companion animal and some might venture that you’ll never know the full force of love if you can’t love a dependent, innocent animal. Once earned a dog’s love is without judgment and lasts their lifetime. The mystery is: How can so strong an emotion vanish and does such a bond truly break with death? How does one recover once death has parted one from the beloved and what is cowardice or courage in the face of such loss?
While not all of us will have pigs or dogs, we will all face the loss of loved ones and we all will hopefully find at least one significant other to break bread and share our lives with. Surely one of the things the pandemic has shown us is just how much meeting with friends for a feast means to our social sanity. “Pig” is about that.
“Pig” is a much better film than Cage’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland” and the film is an impressive directorial debut for Sarnoski. “Pig” was released on 16 July 2021.