“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” – Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
PIG is a remarkable first feature directed by Michael Sarnoski and co-written by Sarnoski and Vanessa Block. The story comes with a deep understanding of its subject. You can feel the care put into its exploration of what happens to a mind when it’s lost in the deep valley of grief, in a few different permutations. It is a gentle and sad rumination on the true nature of love and loss that is set outside and deeply inside the culture of restaurants and food. While on its surface it might seem to be about vengeance, it really isn’t. It’s filled with the aching beauty of Oregon and the human soul.
Nicolas Cage’s performance in PIG represents a career-best. Cage is a performer of epic rage and range, but in PIG, his gentleness is his most interesting, powerful, and deadly quality. I refuse to repeat the saying that “actors are most effective when they cover their emotions” because that’s cliched nonsense. Cage is not hiding his emotions, there are all there in his face and his eyes. They emanate from his body. His character Rob doesn’t speak much, but he doesn’t have to. The real brilliance of his performance in PIG is the trust that he has in his talent and emotions and the world-class level work that he does, without long monologues and without well-lit star-making moments. There’s a shot in the film where his character is making dough and the tender way that he creates that moment without sound and only with his hands visible is something that I haven’t seen an actor do before. He was communicating so much about the character with only his hands visible. Also, what he is saying about this particular character, with his isolation, silence, and gentleness, is brave and accurate. Cage shows his wounds, not the kind you see on his face, but the kind that has burned holes into his soul.
In a way, Cage makes the point that physical hurts are much easier to bear and less damaging than emotional wounds that never really heal. Without revealing the character’s profession, which is a spoiler – I guess, this is a key element of the character of the greatest practitioners of this particular craft that mostly goes unnoticed. It speaks to the central conceit of the story and the film and the character (or lack thereof) of the characters within it. One of Cage’s most intense moments is in a scene where he never raises his voice, but he slides a saber right into the other character’s heart without effort and his scene partner’s reaction completely rises to his level. You see in the man’s clear blue eyes his deepest sorrow as the saber penetrates his chest. It’s really thrilling work.
Alex Wolff as Amir and Adam Arkin as Darius are the other two actors of this triumvirate of acting excellence. Amir is an outwardly confident, but inwardly timid and equally tender man running a truffle business and Darius is a stoic and mocking presence as the restaurant world’s version of a mafioso boss. Wolff also has a wounded quality that is most apparent when he’s not trying to project strength and machismo, but still always there. Arkin has a quality of hiding behind his menacing exterior. He’s a man who is in hiding every bit as much as Rob is. His performance has a satisfying echo of one of his father’s most powerful performances. While hearing his voice in certain scenes, I could hear Harry Roat Jr. from Scarsdale, but he’s not his father. His performance is his own and very touching. All three are complex actors who turn in complex work as a triarchy of men who have suffered loss and have dealt with it (or not) in three very different ways.
PIG is a film that also allows the narrative of the story to play out at its own pace. It was immediately pegged as a tale of revenge and while it has some of those qualities, the idea of a tale of revenge – which it actually isn’t, is subverted. The industry in which the story is set is explored in a whimsical yet realistic way. Yes, it’s funny too. One of the most sorrowful things about the tale is how your craft is elevated by the amount of care and love that you put into it. It is the emotional context of that craft and the hard work that brings out the best in you and makes what you do move others. It makes it special. Other people notice and that’s why we love certain things made by human hands. Perhaps it is a meditation that the things that human beings make, right down to the everyday humble things in our homes, are a way that we express love and express who we are. That human beings who work as these craftspeople put part of their spirit into their work. That they remember even though you might not know who they are. Each segment of the film, I believe there are four, has a title card that is like a menu, it announces what the dish of each segment is as another symbolic reference to what you are about to watch. It’s like the films of Mickey Reece in that way, where food is also important to the story-telling and each segment has a title card that is a menu. I don’t know that this is an influence, but it may well be. Reece has been doing it for some time.
A brief anecdote from my personal life. I was in a terrible relationship with someone who only valued what I could give them. They loved my cooking and baking, but not me. After the horrible things happened and I left, I found that I could no longer cook or bake very well. Things didn’t come out tasting right. I couldn’t dredge up the will to bake. My heart was broken and so was my ability. People think of crafts as skills and not emotional parts of us. PIG shows the audience that the craft is you and what you love and is intrinsically linked to your emotions and your ability to show who you are and express love for other human beings. You are giving of yourself to others. Or you aren’t and everyone knows it. It turns out that Tony Bourdain was absolutely right on this issue.
“I think great chefs evolve that balance between what they themselves can bring, creatively and technically. The great chefs understand human desire. They can balance nurturing with the desire to dazzle or seduce or impress. They understand those things, instinctively if not explicitly. They may not be able to articulate them, necessarily. But they do understand. There’s a lot going on. Ferran Adria, Thomas Keller. There is Mom’s voice in there somewhere. Because without that, it’s a sterile experience. It doesn’t really resonate as powerfully as it could.” ― Anthony Bourdain: The Kindle Singles Interview with David Blum.
Michael Sarnoski and Vanessa Block have constructed a story that shows rather than tells what is going on. I’m not sure where the idea for this story came from but I was immediately reminded of the Sundance gem The Truffle Hunters by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. The other influence that came to mind was the late Anthony Bourdain, a powerful voice in the food industry, and whose quotes are interspersed throughout this review. While there is dialogue and a certain amount of explication, there has to be, most of the time you are left to absorb what’s really going on through the actions and emotions of the actors and mise en scène. At one point, the camera points up to the trees outside of a building, rather than following the character, and your attention is put on the wind’s rustling through the trees’ leaves and branches. It’s a beautiful moment, but it also is there as a grace note, as William Friedkin has called it. It’s not something that moves the plot forward, but it is there to add resonance and emotional weight to the scene through its beauty and mystery. It gives the scene meaning through its symbolism. What it means to me might not be what it means to you, but it does contribute to the overall whole even though it isn’t a plot point. That is art.
Patrick Scola (Monsters and Men) is the cinematographer and he keeps the palette rich and low light. Like it is in Portland, things are rainy and never too bright. The darkness hovers in the corners of Rob’s cabin while the light is a mixture of gold and white lights. Scola uses haze, but never too much, it’s not quite dreamlike. His composition is minimalistic, but he manages to make it alluring. Two scenes have opening shots that are overhead shots of water and trees. There’s a simple regularity to the tops of the trees in the forest and the swells of the lake that bring comfort to the shot which works well because the forest is where Rob feels safe. This is opposed to the angles of the shots after Amir and Rob arrive in Portland. The way they are framed is the opposite. There’s a lack of that comfort. There’s never something that is complete and whole. It is subtle and very well shot.
The casting is great right down to the small roles. The pastry chef looks, sounds, and acts like many of the pastry chefs that I know. The waiter in the basement of the Hotel Portland looks and acts like a waiter. How do I know? I’ve worked in catering as a server. I’ve seen this guy more than once. Good work, Simon Max Hill (Leave No Trace). Sarnoski spoke of going to different places looking for just the right pig and they found her. The pig is the essence of sweetness and steals your heart away immediately. They could have just gotten a trained pig from a company that provides animals, but they took the time to find HER. A pig that a man would come out of exile and take risk everything to find.
Alexis Grapsas (Big Shot) and Philip Klein (Last Full Measure) have composed a spare and sparingly used soundtrack. Mostly strings and mostly used at moments of maximum drama. Sarnoski mentioned their patience with his edicts about the score. While some of the music cues are very well-known classical compositions, their original compositions hold their own.
PIG is a radiant film, stately and bewitching, with large moments of silence that, once again, lets the development of characters and plot take time to breathe and come to life. PIG is fascinating. PIG is as puzzling as human nature. PIG will grab hold of your heart and wring the tears from your core, but only in the most warmhearted way. PIG is a transcendent work of art. With that, I end with these final quotes from Bourdain.
“I like anyone who cooks with pride and who likes what they’re doing, who’s cooking with something resembling love and pride, even if they’re not cooking particularly well. I think they’re on the side of the angels.” ― Anthony Bourdain: The Kindle Singles Interview with David Blum.
“People confuse me. Food doesn’t.” ― Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
PIG arrives in theaters tomorrow, July 16th, from NEON.
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