A still from Pig.
A still from Pig. courtesy neon

The most unexpectedly sublime film of the year, Pig, sees Nicolas Cage reaching new heights of both eccentricity and emotional resonance. A deep look at loss and love, the glorious journey gives the veteran actor a role unlike anything he has done before.

In a story split into multiple parts that are as poetic as they are strange, Cage plays a reclusive truffle hunter living in the woods named Rob who must return to his mysterious past in Portland after his beloved pig is kidnapped. It is the second film to be released this year that was filmed in the city, the first being the fantastic Sophie Jones, though Pig is very much an animal all its own.

This is because the film wholeheartedly commits to wrong-footing its audience in the best way possible. The trailer, and indeed the casting of Cage himself, seems to indicate the film will be an over-the-top thriller where a man must do whatever it takes to get his animal companion back, à la John Wick. While Pig is about that at a very basic level, it is also about so much more. The film delicately tackles weighty ideas about dealing with loss, reconnecting with your past, and trying to find out how to build a better future for yourself. Yes, all those themes are present in a movie called Pig, and it all works out to outstanding results. It was genuinely refreshing to be so thoroughly surprised by how insightful it all manages to be.

It is by focusing on a central emotional journey that the film is able to achieve something really special and unique that is hard to pin down. This may prove to be a bit unnerving for many expecting a more straightforward thriller. Perhaps more importantly, it should be known that Pig is by no means a comedy or an absurdist vehicle for Cage to get to run around cracking heads as he looks for his kidnapped friend. There certainly are moments of dark comedy that prove to be uncannily funny. One such interaction sees Rob make sure it is known: "I don't fuck my pig.” It’s all slightly off-key and funny in the particular way that seeing a man break down crying in a restaurant while Cage talks to him about his past dreams can be.

There are many moments like this where, in the process of seeking answers on the lost pig, the film goes to unusually dark places that exist underneath the bright veneer of the city. An early scene sees Cage endure repeated punches to the face to prove himself worthy of being respected in the city where he used to have a legacy attached to his name. From that point on, he never washes the blood away and instead wears these wounds openly. Whether it is done as a badge of honor or because he doesn’t care, it is as bizarre as it is oddly beautiful to see a man be willing to give so much in pursuit of his friend.

If you are able to roll with these punches, so to speak, the film’s shifts in tone and approach make for a truly enthralling experience. With each new scene building upon the one prior to it in unforeseen yet continually engaging ways, the film creates an emotional cocktail that is distinctly bittersweet. Cage captures the delicate mixture of sadness and sweetness without missing a beat, even in the scenes where he utters next to no words. It is his best performance since his role in the trippy journey into loss that was 2018’s Mandy, while being more grounded and centered around his character.

For writer and director Michael Sarnoski, it is hard to imagine a more intriguing debut film and a sign that his work is one to keep an eye on. It’s a rare thing to be able to create a film around the man that is Nicolas Cage and utilize him effectively, though Sarnoski does just that. As Cage has transcended the typical concept of an actor and become more akin to a cinematic meme, it is far too easy for filmmakers to just fall back onto using his presence for easy laughs (looking at you, Willy's Wonderland).

Pig was filmed in and around Portland.
Pig was filmed in and around Portland. Courtesy Neon

What Sarnoski and co-writer Vanessa Block, in what is also an amazing debut film for her, manage to do is play to Cage’s strengths while also crafting a well-made story in its own right around him. Even as the character is more reserved, there are still many classic Cage-isms where the actor gets to let loose. In one such scene, Rob takes out his rage on the car of his traveling companion and business partner Amir (Alex Wolff). However, rather than just being about the humor of seeing Cage go ham on a car, the scene is about the loss and distress that Rob is feeling about losing his friend.

Most crucially, these moments fit within the narrative and serve a purpose. It all clicks together perfectly and enhances the story. The relationship between Rob and Amir, especially as it develops into more of a friendship, is consistently interesting. Wolff is a good fit as the straight-man who operates as an initially reluctant guide to Cage’s out-of-touch misfit who no longer knows the city he once lived and worked in. Key revelations make a scene where the two prepare a meal together simply flawless. Of worthy praise for this scene is editor Brett Bachman, who previously worked on the similarly outstanding horror film The Vigil. The scene serves as a fitting denouement for the duo’s journey to find their pig and could not have been better edited together to create a bizarrely moving sequence.

The less you can know about Pig, the better. With each new scene and location, including a brief glimpse of a Portland sandwich spot, the film deepens its emotional core while expanding its aspirations. It isn’t quite a “the real treasure was the friends we made along the way” type of film. Rather, it is about revisiting the past where those friends, as well as estranged family, used to hold a far greater role in its character’s life. The key line that “We don't get a lot of things to really care about" initially seems cheesy, like a way to set up a revenge flick. Instead, that simple statement takes on a whole new meaning when it becomes clear why it is that Rob doesn’t have many things left to care about. It makes his desire to cling to what he can all the more tragic and moving.

It all makes Pig into a film that is brimming with rich ideas, which are best experienced with an open mind and a willingness to go along on a quest with Nicolas Cage as he attempts to find a best friend who just happens to be of the snouted, four-legged variety.

You can see Pig in theaters this Friday, July 16.