The rabidity that surrounds the cult of Nicolas Cage – a baying midnight movie crowd urging the star to outdo himself with a performance even wilder than the last – has slowly become intolerable in recent years. The Oscar-winning actor, eschewing any semblance of a serious career, has happily obliged his fans, tearing up scenery and spitting it out with manic vigor. But while his outsized acting has proved mysteriously irresistible to some, I’ve found it increasingly grating, a dumb joke that stopped being funny a while ago.
Each new role, usually played to an 11 when a 7 would do, has pushed Cage deeper and deeper into tiresome self-parody, screaming and showboating rather than doing anything of interest, edging further away from the fine, and quiet, work he’s done in films like Leaving Las Vegas, Joe and The Weather Man. On paper, there’s something knowingly silly about his latest – a truffle hunter seeks revenge on whoever stole his pig – but in Michael Sarnoski’s muted debut, Cage is given the time and space to be sincere once again, a rare experience for him and a rewarding one for us. It’s not quite substantial enough to sit alongside his other career highs, but it’s effective enough to make us crave more challenges from him, to hear him whisper rather than shout.
In Pig, Cage plays Robin, a man living in the Oregon wilderness with just his pig for company. The pair survive by selling the truffles they find. But when his pig is taken in the middle of the night, Robin is forced to re-enter the world he turned his back on to find out why she was taken and how he can get her back.
It’s a set-up that loosely recalls the John Wick films or, more recently, Nobody and as such, Sarnoski is almost deliberately toying with our expectations of what a film like this starring an actor like Cage will be. We’ve been taught to await a violent backstory and a gnarly comeuppance, but from the early scenes – beautifully shot, slowly unfolding – it’s clear that this is not going to be the revenge thriller we expect. Instead, it’s a surprisingly mournful drama that’s less about getting one’s own back and more about getting one’s self back, an unusual journey that takes Cage, and us, deep into the surprisingly dark foodie world of gentrified Portland. As a renowned ex-chef returning to a city overrun with hipster eateries, he’s both confused and disappointed; but rather than poke fun at easy targets, Sarnoski’s script gives an even-handed view of change, showing how the city has gone too far ahead, but also how Robin has gone too far back.
Cage is remarkably restrained (bar one unnecessary scream), delicately deconstructing what we’ve come to expect from him. His trademark tics are gone, his voice that much softer, his swagger replaced by an unsureness, an aggressive blare that’s faded into calm. It’s his best work for years, bar admittedly low, and shows that underneath the lazy mugging to the cheap seats, he’s still a soulful and careful actor. The film hints at an encouraging new phase (even if his upcoming slate, including a role as Joe Exotic, suggests otherwise), an awareness of what can happen when he’s given the opportunity to do something other than high-volume theatrics. It also hints at exciting things to come from Sarnoski, a gifted visual film-maker, who has assembled a promising, if imperfect, debut.
Pig is ultimately as quiet as Cage is, for better or worse – sometimes too quiet to be truly distinctive, but moving in its look at how grief can throw us off our axis, especially in the film’s final moments. The film is about loss, but for Cage, it’s about finding something. Here’s hoping that he can find it again.