Michael Sarnoski’s Directorial Debut is a Riveting Revenge Thriller

by Hassan Ilahi

Few movie stars in Hollywood, once regarded as inspirational icons, are rarely treated as seriously as Nicolas Cage. No longer a national treasure movie-goers were once moonstruck with, Cage has gone in 60 seconds from being one of Hollywood’s greatest stars to a laughable Internet meme.

While Cage’s successful movies have amassed cult following, his typecasting in roles that require raging overacting has drawn criticism. In all fairness, one may argue Cage hasn’t traditionally been given meatiest material to munch on.

After all, straight-to-video B-movies aren’t particularly effective at giving actors Oscar-winning roles. Nonetheless, this hasn’t prevented Cage from phoning it in by accepting projects for paycheck rather than storytelling. Could Cage stage a late-career comeback to engage an industry that’s stopped taking his artistry seriously?

For a movie-star accused of hamming his uncaged rage, it’s a squeal-worthy surprise to see Cage shine without hogging spotlight in his latest film Pig. An intense, heartbreaking and riveting thriller, it rewards Cage his comeback through mouth-watering ham-steak role. With his directorial debut, Michael Sarnoski utilizes Nicolas Cage’s legacy to paint compassionate portrait of a restauranteur’s bygone glory.

Packed with captivating cinematography, spellbinding storytelling and extraordinary performances, it’s an expectation-subverting thriller. Although Pig is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it isn’t a flawless film. It’s boar-ingly paced, and undermined by a ham-handed conclusion. Nonetheless, it offers thought-provoking entertainment that will satisfy fans of Independent Cinema.

Set in Oregonian wilderness, Pig follows a truffle-hunter that embarks on treacherous journey to reclaim his pig after its disappearance. Nicolas Cage stars in the main role as Robin Feld, a forest-dwelling recluse whose sole companion’s his precious pig. However, Robin’s serene lifestyle is shattered when his animal is kidnapped. Accompanied by street-smart salesman Amir (Alex Wolff), Robin investigates high-end restaurants for his swine. As Robin uncovers animal cruelty, his fragile humanity declines.

At first glance, this Taken-like premise sounds like ridiculous excuse for Nicolas Cage to unleash his rage. Audiences know exactly what to expect whenever Cage’s name headlines movies: overacting, mindless violence and nonsensical stories. With Pig, however, first-time filmmaker Michael Sarnoski defies viewers’ expectation by building a clever anti-revenge thriller. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to subvert expectations by reconstructing Nicolas Cage’s brand, but he pulls it off successfully.

Using spellbinding cinematography, Sarnoski draws viewers into a grief-stricken truffle-hunter’s mission to reclaim his long-lost swine. For a first-time filmmaker, Sarnoski makes admirably audacious choices behind the camera through fluctuating lighting. Working alongside cinematographer Patrick Scola, Sarnoski effectively utilizes changing lighting to convey differences between natural wilderness and culinary lifestyle. For instance, natural lighting immerses viewers into Robin’s poverty-stricken existence.

In striking contrast, low-key lighting demonstrates luxurious lifestyles of high-end restauranteurs. Inspired by Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, these lighting changes emphasize hermits’ struggles to adjust smoothly to real world following solitary living. Sarnoski excels at tracking a truffle-hunter’s expedition for his disappeared swine companion, and his directorial debut is worth watching in theaters for this reason alone.

If stories of vengeance-seeking hunters do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see Pig. Sarnoski’s greatest screenwriting strength is his aptitude for assembling compassionate reflections of a washed-up restauranteur using minimal dialogue. In Hollywood, most Nicolas Cage movies are driven by melodramatic monologues and depend solely on rageful outbursts to entertain audiences. This often leaves little room for emotional investment and hinders viewers’ engagement.

Thankfully, however, that’s definitely not the problem with Pig. Sarnoski prudently avoids over-the-top theatrics of Cage’s previous films. Instead, he adeptly uses silent sequences to capture a reclusive hermit’s negative attitudes towards food industry. For example, minimal dialogue is used particularly well to criticize food industry in the restaurant confrontation scene. During this unforgettable sequence, Robin interrogates a pompous diner manager about his swine’s whereabouts.

It’s hard to not marvel at stretches of silence that demonstrate Robin’s bottled-up hatred in grim style reminiscent of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Through this understated technique, Sarnoski builds a sympathetic character that connects with viewers without raging outbursts. It represents an ingenious metaphor for Cage’s career by comparing his tarnished legacy with Robin’s bygone glory. Using a marvelous screenplay, Sarnoski builds culinary art.

One can’t overlook phenomenal performances.

Nicolas Cage delivers one of the greatest performances of his career as Robin Feld. Cage achieved stardom for playing deranged characters in action movies (ex. 1997’s Con Air). With Pig, however, he takes on his most soft-spoken role to date. It’s not easy to portray a grief-stricken recluse that endeavors to locate his disappeared swine. It’s a challenging role that requires the actor to restrain his uncaged rage by communicating emotion using little dialogue. However, Cage pulls it off effortlessly.  With mesmerizing expressions, he conveys desperation, grief and resentments of a truffle-hunter that sacrifices his reputation to find his animal. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance from Hollywood’s most misunderstood movie-star.

Alex Wolff is wonderful in the role of a self-absorbed supplier that seeks prosperity in a competitive culinary industry. Inspired by Aaron Paul’s turn in Breaking Bad, Wolff crafts a multidimensional sidekick character that struggles with personal self-esteem issues. As Amir, Wolff showcases flair for conveying a salesman’s support for his unusual client using non-verbal gestures. Whether he’s softly pushing Robin to confront a chef or consoling him after tragedy, Wolff adroitly utilizes gestures to convey Amir’s commitment towards his client. It’s a spectacular performance from a rising star.

Despite its extraordinary performances, however, it’s unfortunate that Pig delivers undercooked meals that don’t entirely capitalize on its movie-star’s mouth-watering appeal. Sarnoski’s decision to split the movie into three separate sections is bold and unexpected, but it doesn’t completely work. Due to this faulty approach, Robin’s diversions into brutal fight-clubs aren’t always as entertaining as his journey to locate his pig. Moreover, the film is undermined by a misconceived ending.

It’s an anti-climactic finale that raises misconceptions about animal cruelty’s pervasiveness in food industry. Whereas this sad ending working in a thriller like 2007’s I Am Legend, it hinders this movie’s emotional impact. Its emotional impact is blunted by the fact that we rarely spend substantial time with Robin and his porcine. In order for animal losses to provoke emotional reactions, believable human-animal bonds need to exist. Due to its controversial conclusion, Pig falls short of expectations.

On a final note, it’s worth mentioning that Pig’s restaurant dishes aren’t tailored towards everyone’s tastebuds. Unlike Nicolas Cage’s typical action-packed flicks, the movie’s serious themes won’t satisfy mainstream audiences. The film tackles controversial themes such as animal cruelty, greed and loss that will disturb certain viewers. Viewers that are sensitive towards graphic scenes of animal cruelty won’t enjoy the film. Due to its somber themes, Pig won’t please everyone.

Ultimately, Pig is a satisfactory revenge thriller with ingredients that don’t often connect into delicious recipe for success. An engrossing but overambitious project, it proves Cage can still engage audiences. If retired chefs can prepare five-star meals post-stardom, national treasures whose careers have ridden past ghostly hellfire deserve second chances at adaptation even if their glory days left Las Vegas over time.

Hassan’s Grade:  B+