The Michael Sarnoski film about a former chef searching for his truffle-hunting pig is tonally inconsistent and narratively incoherent
The only thing shaved in Pig — which I’d call a Nicolas Cage vehicle, but vehicle to where? — are the black truffles buried deep in the Oregonian forest. Everyone else is hirsute; everything else hairy. This includes Rob, who we first meet munching dirt and slowly scampering through the forest. Played by Cage as a series of grunts and a beard, Robin Feld is a former hotshot Portland chef who, after a personal tragedy, takes to the woods to, with the help of an adorable pig (uncredited), eke out a living by hunting leucangium carthusianum, better known as Oregon black truffles.
When his pig is stolen in the dead of night with a squall of squeals (pig) and murmurs (thieves), the gears of the movie start turning like a Jean Tinguely sculpture. Rob returns to the city in a slo-mo mumblecore porcine hunt. While the trailer suggests an action-packed revenge flick — like Taken but with a pig — the film actually feels more like endless errands, listlessly run.
Rob is accompanied on his mythopoetic porco-quixotic journey through Portland by Amir (Alex Wolff), an upstart entrepreneur trying to establish himself as a truffle dealer. Amir is Rob’s only point of contact with the world, and regularly visits Old Man Rob in his cabin to purchase his foraged truffles. Amir drives a bitchin’ Camaro, blasting classical music, and wears a silly — though I daresay fetching — Puss in Boots goatee with a ridiculous Gucci belt buckle, which is considerably less fetching. They are a study in opposites. Rob drives a broken-down pickup truck, wears fingerless gloves, a Mr. Twit beard, and filthy long johns. He’s a sullen Thoreau, minus the poetry.
Once in Portland, the unlikely duo embarks on a series of increasingly outlandish and Odyssean adventures which are meant, somehow, to ladder up to finding his pig. (Rob, as he makes clear, loves this pig and not just for her economic relevance.) For instance, in the shadows of a food cart pod, they meet Edgar (Darius Pierce), another bearded sad sack who runs an underground fight club for restaurant workers in the subterranean remnants of the now-closed Hotel Portland. When he refuses to tell Rob where the pig is (“I remember a time your name meant something to people, Robin. But now? You have no value. You don’t even exist anymore,” he says, admirably straight-faced), Rob, for some reason, heads to the fight club and subjects himself to a beating by a small man in a pink waistcoat. Like Mario bonking his head on a brick, this act of self-harm yields from Edgar the name of a chef, Finway, who might have a bead on this missing pig. Blood matted into his biblical beard and besmirching his brow, Cage is off and the hunt is on.
If all this sounds madcap and maybe funny, it isn’t. Cinematographically, Pig is shot with unrelenting solemnity. Everything is overcast; everyone’s bummed. The city is bathed in darkness; the forest in shadow. The overarching vibe is womp.
Anyway, Finway’s place, Eurydice, is the hottest restaurant in Portland. The room is bathed in whiteness, from the linens to the plates to the patrons. Rob and Amir score a table and are greeted with a Portlandia-level send-up of fine dining. We open with a close-up shot of a server as New Age-y music plays quietly in the background: “Today’s journey begins by uniting the depths of the sea with the riches of our forests. We’ve emulsified locally sourced scallops encased in a flash-frozen seawater roe blend on a bed of foraged huckleberry foam. All bathed in the smoke of Douglas fir cones.”
She opens a glass cloche, smoke billows, and Rob eyes the deconstructed scallop suspiciously. “I’d like to speak to the chef,” he says, in that absolutely inimitable Cage-ian cadence. (It is both bored-sounding and threatening.) Finway, a clown of a man, played in high camp by David Knell, was, it turns out, fired by Rob years ago, and Rob uses his near-total recall of past events and dishes to demoralize him, telling Finway his critics and customers “aren’t real.” “Didn’t you want to open a pub?” he asks, “You live your life for them and they don’t even see you.” The scene ends with Finway in tears, his soul conquered, and having divulged that the man responsible for the pignapping is none other than Amir’s father, the city’s go-to fine-foods dealer Darius (Adam Arkin).
Finally they visit Darius, whose trim salt-and-pepper beard is the tidiest thing in the whole movie. Darius, it turns out, has had Rob’s pig stolen in an effort — I think I have this right — to dissuade his son from entering the business because … it gets murky here, but … Darius’s wife had tried to commit suicide, is now in a vegetative state, and Darius’s heart has hardened to the extent that he steals this pig in order to persuade his son to take a desk job. I don’t know. I’m also not sure, to be honest, why, even if that were the case, stealing Rob’s pig is the move since he also offers to give Rob $20,000 to buy another pig, in which case, wouldn’t he just get another pig? Again, I don’t know. I gave up trying to root out the logic in the film. Not all of us are as talented as truffle-hunting pigs.
Obviously, art reserves the right to unmoor itself from reality. Not everything must be mimetic. But if the work in question — be it prose or painting or play or film — chooses to sail into the uncharted waters of abstraction, it should then abide by its own internally consistent set of rules. A work of art doesn’t need to be real, but it needs to be real to itself. And here is where the film falters.
Pig stumbles through satire, thriller, and meditative character study. Its stance, vis-a-vis the world it creates, is inconstant and its narrative incoherent. Whom do we hold in compassion and whom in contempt? What is meant to be risible and what saturnine?
Then there are the narrative inconsistencies that seem unrealistic in a non-mindful way. The veneration in which Rob is held is so wildly overstated it can’t help but distract. (Even the triumphant return of Rob’s closest IRL analogue, Jeremiah Tower, was met with only with a few headlines and shoulder shrugs.) That restaurant workers lacking health insurance would risk loss of income with bare-knuckled fighting seems unlikely. (They don’t even wear mouthpieces.) That a specialty food kingpin is a nefarious, and potentially murderous, villain is silly. Living, breathing women are all but absent from the film. Also, why doesn’t Nic Cage wash his face or take off his fingerless gloves like, ever? Why does Amir fall so quickly into this quest with Rob? What is the motivation? Narrative expediency is not a sufficient response.
There’s a lot of fatuous poppycock from a culinary perspective, too. For instance, Cage is obsessed with finding a salted baguette, made by the baker (a woman the film doesn’t deign to light sufficiently, played by October Moore) who used to work at his restaurant, Hestia. (All of the film’s three acts have food-inspired titles. This takes place in the third act: “A Bottle, A Bird, A Salted Baguette.”) But what the fuck is a salted baguette? Or, more saliently, what baguettes do not have salt in them? This makes about as much sense as Rob’s haughty discourse on the unreality of both critics and customers. “They aren’t real!” he tells Finway, as if the work of a chef takes place in a vacuum. What solipsistic onanism is this?
There are, to be clear, moments of emotional beauty and visual pleasure. There is a sublimity in Cage’s mopeyness and some serious Young Brando vibes in Wolff’s vulnerability. Portland appears in its foggy, gloomy glory, though the same cannot be said of its restaurant scene, which is all but obscured.
Even with the liberties it takes, Pig has some good food moments, too. The culinary apex of the film hinges on Rob preparing a dish he served to Darius and his wife at his restaurant many years ago. Tasting the dish again softens Darius’s villainous heart, allowing him to finally reveal the full story of what happened to the goddamn pig. It hardly matters.
The cooking sequence, featuring both Rob and Amir working in Darius’s home kitchen, is well shot. There is much sniffing of thyme, mandolining of chanterelles, and searing of pigeon. The affect is heightened, but the verisimilitude is absolute. (Chef Gabriel Rucker of Portland’s Le Pigeon was Cage’s guide in this.) What makes this sequence so lovely is the way it shows how cooking can be both grounded and sublime, fantastical and methodical, disciplined and disruptive at once. It can, in short, be everything that Pig isn’t.
Joshua David Stein is the co-author of The Nom Wah Cookbook and Il Buco: Stories & Recipes, and the memoir Notes from a Young Black Chef with Kwame Onwuachi. He is the author of six children’s books, most recently The Invisible Alphabet, with illustrations by Ron Barrett, and the forthcoming cookbook Cooking for Your Kids: At Home with the World’s Greatest Chefs. Follow him on Instagram at @joshuadavidstein.