Nicolas Cage bloody at a restaurant in "Pig".

Nicolas Cage and the Complexity of Gentleness in “Pig”

“Pig” is a story about the power of gentleness. It’s both sad and soothing. It sees humanity in the isolated, whether living alone in the woods or making deals surrounded by people. It recognizes how something as overpowering as love is stored in our memories so that its loss doesn’t break us day by day. It’s about that dam we create to stop love from overflowing us and to stop loss from overwhelming us, a cruelty and kindness to ourselves in turn.

The most fundamental bait-and-switch about “Pig” is that it stars Nicolas Cage. He plays Rob, a truffle hunter living in the backwoods with a truffle pig. High-end food suppliers prize truffles, and often pay hundreds of dollars an ounce for these mushrooms. A single find can rake in thousands; likewise a pig trained to find them. Rob’s pig is stolen, and he forms an awkward partnership with his slick buyer Amir (Alex Wolff). They head to Portland, Oregon to track down who has his pig.

That may feel like a set-up for a D-grade Nicolas Cage revenge film. I’ve heard “Pig” referred to as “John Wick with Nicolas Cage”, which is so far off-the-mark it feels like it’s intentionally trying to be the least accurate film comparison I’ve ever heard. “Pig” is a meditative drama about the precise intersection where love and memory are hollowed out by toxicity and trauma, seen through the lens of how food evokes memory. It feels much more like a vignette from “Tampopo” writ large.

This is also the best performance I’ve seen Nicolas Cage give. That may seem like faint praise, but let’s remember how remarkable he’s been in films like “Adaptation”, “Leaving Las Vegas”, “Lord of War”, and “Matchstick Men”. He makes a lot of crap, but when he really invests himself, Cage is nearly unparalleled.

I’ll avoid spoilers, but there’s a moment halfway through the film where you can see just how much anger is in his eyes. A physically imposing figure, you truly think Rob will just start pummeling someone into a pulp in front of onlookers. You can see his recognition of that anger, the struggle to quell it, and the exact moment it recedes. It turns into something else. He invokes a memory and uses it to deconstruct the man in front of him with understanding and kindness.

Plenty of films shock with violence and horror, and I love many of them. Yet when we think of films that are gentle, we tend to think of something sappy or – at best – reassuringly wholesome. Some of them are great, but they don’t necessarily shock us. There’s almost nothing out there that shocks us with its moments of gentleness and humanity. Plenty of films are empathetic, though perhaps not as many as there should be. I don’t think there are many that genuinely revere the power of understanding.

“Pig” reveres understanding to the point where it asks us to understand a protagonist who barely wants anything to do with us, an all-but-disowned son who wants nothing to do with him, his cruel and inhumane father, a restaurateur who’s turned his back to his dreams, a man who pays money to beat another, a woman willing to lend aid only because it helps her profit margin.

Writer Vanessa Block and writer-director Michael Sarnoski don’t justify these people. The film doesn’t seek to ennoble them or soften their harshness and harm. All it says is there’s something to understand here, something more than can be understood at first assumption. “Pig” doesn’t even fill in all the blanks, but in its disconnections, it provides evidence. It creates art not out of what we know, but from the shape of the spaces where what we know is missing.

There’s a line from “Doctor Who” I’ve always loved. “When something goes missing, you can always recreate it by the hole it left”. Memory fades and fails us, faces become what we know from photographs rather than the person who looked at us, a line or two of voice you can remember with clarity becomes a monument to years of conversations. It’s a desperate scramble to keep what’s real of someone who’s gone from disappearing. What’s increasingly missing is the shape of that person, and more and more their shape becomes the hole they left. Grief that they aren’t there anymore turns to guilt that you couldn’t maintain their detail in a way that matches reality – as if that’s even possible.

“Pig” not only understands how this transformation of grief to guilt motivates its characters, it offers its characters to us as half-missing shapes. We have to understand them not just by what the film tells us, but by what it specifically doesn’t. We’re asked to see people by what’s there and what isn’t, which is rare both on film and in life. What all of the characters in “Pig” share is their isolation, no matter how many others are around. What’s missing controls lives that can no longer progress and create new space.

The best thing I can say about “Pig” is that it made a part of me feel seen. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a truffle hunter or a hermit. I don’t feel like I can’t progress or create that new space. Yet the last few years have felt incredibly isolating to many people. Overwhelming bigotry, the pandemic, new disasters every day, the concept that we have less and less control by the day. Our culture has incentivized isolation, hatred, and impersonality – brand image, the bottom line, everything’s fine no matter how much of what’s missing needs to be pasted over. It doesn’t matter if it’s real, or kind.

We all have a hole where a culture we believed to be a bit kinder creates a missing shape in us. Even if it never was so kind, we all have a grief that our belief in that kindness is lost, a guilt that no matter how hard we try we can’t seem to get far in reshaping it.

“Pig” is an allegory about the power of gentleness. I just hope it isn’t its eulogy as well. It clarifies that we can’t be gentle until we recognize what isn’t there in others, and can be real about what’s missing that we paste over in ourselves. How can you be kind if you deny that kindness to yourself? How can you be gentle if you don’t understand what gentleness someone else needs?

Kindness is often treated in a reductive way. Sometimes anger is legitimate and justified. Anger at an injustice is kindness. Kindness intersects every other emotion, and I believe in the full emotional set. We’re not short on anger these days. We haven’t forgotten that or pasted it over, nor should we. What we’re encouraged to forget isn’t just kindness and gentleness, however, it’s also the understanding and empathy that lets us recognize how to use them.

That’s not the excessive, performative, infantilized sentimentality that’s attached to kindness across our media; it’s a complex set of adult emotions that is one of the most demanding ways of being to learn. That’s what “Pig” clarifies – how easy it is to forget that, how difficult it is to remember, how necessary it is yet how commonly it’s dismissed.

How strange is it to see a man embody gentleness and believe it, as an actor we know for performing the opposite, in a tale that’s set up to be the opposite, in a way that compels those around him to have to face their own gentleness with a fear of how strange it is to see it after all these years. “Pig” is the best thing Nicolas Cage has done, but if that doesn’t seem like saying much, it’s the best thing most actors could ever hope to do because it’s something we almost never see. It’s something we almost never see on-screen, it’s something we rarely see for others, and it’s something threatened in how we envision ourselves.

You can watch “Pig” on Hulu or see where to rent it.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

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