How Michael Sarnoski’s ‘Pig’ grows richer with each viewing

Every year, right around the kickoff of fall, movie fans and critics start thinking about the best movies they’ve seen in the calendar year. The good, bad, ugly, and the truly great. Sometimes, those top films can be erased from the memory the following year, after new movies arrive and a new awards race begins.

My #1 of the year may pale in comparison to the next year’s top film, or it may just get pushed completely out of the way by the next fall season of contenders. Sometimes, rarer than seeing two awesome movies inside a month before November, a top film endures. Michael Sarnoski’s “Pig” is a shining example.

Released in 2021 during the thick of summer blockbusters, the Nicolas Cage-starring drama grossed a total of $3 million during its run. Neon pushed hard during the awards campaign, and Cage scored some nominations. But “Pig” isn’t a movie award givers like to show off. It’s too dark, complex, symbolic, and doesn’t offer up much on the poster outside of Cage doing his best avenging Rob Zombie impersonation. This isn’t John Wick with Nic Cage. You have to look beyond that. You have to look inside to see what’s there. I did, about 10 times.

From Cage’s restrained performance and supporting work of Alex Wolff and Adam Arkin to the potent themes of family business hazards and endured grief, Sarnoski’s movie hit all the marks and left you wanting more. It wasn’t a “need more film to complete story” reason, more like a “give me more time with the characters” desire.

Neon showed us one film in the promotion campaign, but Sarnoski gave audiences something different. And it worked! Usually that spidey sense can be too spicy for audiences, but anyone who has lost someone in their lives can consume this movie and take something poignant away. It’s not a revenge tale with guns, octane, and candy basket style.

“Pig” is its own thing, and here is my original review, which was posted last year on St. Louis Jewish Light. Enjoy… more words about this incredible movie.

We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.”

“Pig” is not what you think it is. The creepy looking “Nicolas Cage as Rob Zombie” poster doesn’t tell you much and for good reason. In fact, it may be a good idea to stop reading this review. But I’m going to keep talking about what I found to be the best movie I’ve seen in 2021. One I didn’t see coming at all.

What we know about the mysterious yet oddly revered Rob (Cage) as the opening credits begin is that he has secluded himself in the deep woods of Portland, Ore. with his lovely pet, a foraging pig-one with an actual beard. Every day, they go into the forest looking for truffles, returning home to split the winnings under a warm fire. Rob sells them to a local buyer named Amir (Alex Wolff), and the wheel continues to turn. Director Michael Sarnoski wisely keeps certain details and plot points hidden, allowing our mind to race around piecing the potential plot together from previous films.

The movie isn’t even 20 minutes old before Rob’s beloved pig is stolen, and he must find a way to get her back. That’s all I’ll tell you about the plot because once again, the goods should never be spoiled before the first taste. Practical in all the best ways, “Pig” operates like an eccentric wilderness detective novel, unfolding on its own time and not at the audience’s leisure — like a pesky onion that wants to hold onto its layers.

Sarnoski co-wrote one heck of a juicy script with Vanessa Block, showcasing Cage like he has rarely been used before. Rob has already lost one thing sacred to him in life; he can’t handle another chunk of himself being ripped away. That’s exactly how the actor plays him, straight to the bone but not in an overzealous way. This isn’t crazy, wacky Nic Cage, more like a somber and weathered loner who finds his normal upended.

He’s one of the few actors who doesn’t require a ton of dialogue in order to transmit emotion and connect with you. The man doesn’t know how to be obtuse on screen, finding new ways to be weird yet humanistic at the same time. It’s the kind of performance that thrives on what we already know about Cage and what we’ve come to love about him. He’s not afraid to go there. While Rob does carry a few similar tones to his most recent critical hits like “Mandy” and “Joe,” this “Pig” brings out the absolute best in Cage. I hope the awards people don’t forget about him underneath all that hair, beard, and heartbreak.

While he’s outstanding, Cage isn’t the only wonder in the film. Wolff (whose jazz pianist father is Jewish and mother is actress Polly Draper) is terrific in his own ways, revealing a young truffle salesman who wants to know his own father instead of being exactly like him. Amir and Rob, both dealing with their own storms, form this unlikely friendship, one with a few surprises and unexpected twists.

Together, they form the movie’s heart. One sees what he never had in life while the other sees a better version of what he was given at birth. It’s outstanding due to Wolff not only holding his own with Cage but bringing out graceful notes in the older thespian. That synergy helps the characters grow from ordinary to interesting while pushing the story along. Wolff, the son of a Jewish musician with an acting brother named Nat, really carves something out here. We should be talking about him as much as we talk about Timothee Chalemet.

The casting is full of genuine surprises. Adam Arkin has a pair of scenes that sizzle. Playing a man sharing Rob’s pain but in a different manner, he isn’t exactly what you expect when the screen first introduces him. Does he know where his pig is, or is something else going on? Sarnoski and Block keep the audience off balance most of the time and using Arkin’s best strengths as an actor really helps the third act shine.

“Pig” is a film that gets to the meat of its plot like a truffle hunter burrows his hands in the dirt, hoping to find something poetic about an isolated yet happy existence in the wilderness–a place known to save or lose broken souls. I prefer movies that appear lived-in and search for new ways to make the viewer feel. It’s gnarly and dirty, instead of neat and fancy. The 91 minutes move like real time instead of jumping days, allowing for the characters to tell thought-provoking stories that give little details about their past.

In one scene, Amir is telling a story about his parents coming home after an amazing meal when he was a kid, how it was a bright light in a rather dark childhood. A seemingly innocent story suddenly hits hard towards the end, and then, a couple dots in the story connect without us being ready for it. Something clicks and the film becomes something more.

Come to think of it, nothing about “Pig” is rushed. It’s patient, perceptive, and earns its time in your head long after the credits return. Poignancy hits you out of nowhere here. It’s not summer escapist fun; more like the antidote.

It’s the first film in 2021 to make me stop and go, “wow.” I’ve seen some great ones so far this year, but none of them hit this hard. More than revenge, “Pig” is about grief and how human beings deal with its many layers. How it sometimes allows us to bend instead of break. But sometimes, there’s a light that keeps us going. For Rob, it’s the pig.

For me, it’s movies like this.

(Originally posted on St. Louis Jewish Light.)

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