The rug pull of Pig is now widely known, but how it does it is still so compelling. After several years of a whole lot of ‘it is John Wick but…’ films, known goofy-action-icon Nicholas Cage taking on the ‘John Wick but..’ mantle, this time trying to get back his Pig, seems like an enjoyably known quantity. This premise leans into the actor’s persona and it being a pig seems like enough self-aware goofiness to make this a fun time, a good enough gimmick to get you to watch another ‘one of those’. And then Pig isn’t that at all. And that’s the point.
This is a very self aware and playful film, but in a different way than audiences will be used to. The film is deeply aware of expectation, lining up with generic tropes very closely to begin with. We open on a foreboding calm; we then have a mysterious act of violence (one begging out for revenge) and then we have the beginning of a single-minded pursuit of justice. We’ve seen Nicholas Cage in films adjacent to this and we know his capacity to go extreme, we await the heightened performance. The syntax of the film is all in line with thriller and action: we are in fast cars heading straight ahead, the music is tense, we meet enigmatic characters with mysterious pasts. Tropes are being ticked off: Cage’s character is a truffle hunter now but he has clearly done so as an escape. This man is a mystery, he has a past he is fleeing from. When we arrive in Portland (our chosen city) people start to know him and talk about him as having some former glory. These people seem to be important people, shady people perhaps.
The web is building up in the audience’s mind: Cage is a killer that got out; a gangster that went straight. His arrival creates surprise and his past is seemingly coming to the surface. He even knows of old places, gang adjacent places, where people do off-the-record things in covered up locations. And then, just like that, the film mellows. We go from a heightened momentum and a sense of menace to a feel of melancholic mourning. We’ve not been lied to but we have been played. This is a film about hidden pasts and escapes, but these pasts are more soulful, gentle and atypical for film. Pig is ultimately a culinary adventure through the past, a film that drips in history and times gone by. It is a film about our presents, the pasts that made these and a reconsideration of our lot in lives. Cage’s character works very much as an intervening symbol, something dredged up from the past to remind people of how things were to contextualise where they are now.
In addition to this, the film is also about throwing away pretention and engaging with authenticity. It is about living honestly. This is echoed in a structure that pushes you one way and then gently guides you in a different direction. This genre shift does actually make us consider our wants and expectations out of a film, and it does align us nicely to the characters. It also gives a sense of importance to the central issues that are, mostly, very down-to-Earth issues. The heightened register, which softens, only adds to things. This pull at the start also makes us engage closely with the film, we are engaged with issues that might not grip us otherwise. The dramatic aspects of the film, central pig quest aside, don’t scream out immersion. This way in gives them the import they deserve.
But, again, this is also a playful film. Think of it as a more melancholic Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, as it converses with genre expectations while unpicking them at the same time. Pig knows it is a bit silly, that applying life and death vengeance stakes to cookery and pretentious food culture is a post-modern gag. But it earns it. There is a backbone of dry humour that brings another level to the film but, ultimately, the whole thing works because it commits. The film takes this all seriously. It breathes life into it. It finds the complexity of a mob movie in a more prosaic setting and runs with it. A lot of this is anchored by Cage’s central performance, which displays a natural wit and charm but also harnesses deep emotion. Knowing what Cage can do and seeing the film pull back from it, his performance too, is part of why his turn is so good. To watch Pig is to be played with, as an audience member, but this manipulation and orchestration is very well done. You are in capable hands and, you know what, they will make you care about the way the Portland food scene has gone and where it should be.