“Pig” is an entry in a genre I don’t think we’ve ever seen before: Food Noir. It certainly isn’t what you’d expect from a movie that casts Nicolas Cage as a reclusive truffle hunter who descends into the criminal underworld of Portland, Ore., on the trail of his stolen pig.
From that description, you may think you’re going to get a patented Cage bug-out so bad it’s good (or so bad it’s bad) or a “John Wick” knock-off with the star doling out bloody vengeance in a porcine-fueled fury. On the contrary, “Pig” turns out to be a brooding character study with a powerfully subdued lead performance and some fine, taut filmmaking from Michael Sarnoski, making his feature debut. It transfers the paranoia of noir and the tense, violent calm of a wandering samurai film to a city’s restaurant culture, and if that sounds like (and probably is) a ridiculous concept, it’s to everyone’s credit that “Pig” works as well as it does for as long as it does.
When we first meet Cage’s character, he’s a nameless hermit living in the deep forest outside of Portland, bearded, long-haired, and monosyllabic, digging up fungal gold with the aid of the pig, a sweet-faced sow. His only contact with the outside world is a truffle dealer named Amir, played with brash insecurity by the slippery young talent Alex Wolff (“Hereditary”). Amir plays classical music lectures in his sports car like he’s prepping for an exam that never comes.
One night, someone breaks in, coshes the hermit on the head and runs off with the pig screaming under his or her arm. His head scabbed with blood, the hermit — whose name we learn is Robin — heads into the city determined to claim the creature closest to his heart.
We learn quite a bit more about Robin, including that he is, or was, a legendary figure within the film’s milieu. There’s a sequence halfway in where the hero — very much worse for the wear by this time — sits in a five-star restaurant and asks to see the chef, a preening culinary fop (David Knell) whose double-take when he recognizes Robin is the best special effect in the movie. The scene continues to build deliciously, Robin pulling out the struts from the chef’s pretensions by reminding him of his youthful gastronomic dreams.
But, yes, “Pig” is also a movie that posits an underground fight club where restaurant workers beat the stuffing out of handsomely paid homeless men. Sarnoski’s skewed but dark take on the whole “down these mean streets a man must go” genre — he co-wrote the script with Vanessa Block — ducks into alleys of preposterousness on a regular basis, but it rights itself time and again through the rigorousness of its vision, and it allows the star to walk a fine line between the comic and the doomed. Someone asks Robin if he has, uh, sexual relations with his pig (why else would he be so implacably bent on its return?), to which he responds, “I don’t [expletive] my pig” — a laugh line, to be sure, but Cage tethers it to his character’s mournful intensity. In a Nicolas Cage movie, you always wait for him to go nuclear, but Robin never does. The pot remains boiling but closed throughout.
I could have used a little more color in the cinematography; “Pig” unfolds in a browned-out, rained-out Pacific Northwest wasteland. Good actors like Gretchen Corbett (a regular on “The Rockford Files” way back in the day) as a fiery truffle broker and Adam Arkin as a mysterious Mr. Big are left somewhat stranded, although the latter gets a moment toward the end that makes you realize “Pig” includes “Ratatouille” among its ingredients as well. In the final act, Sarnoski departs from genre in ways that showcase his ambitions while proving sadly unsatisfying as drama, a risk the director seems willing to have taken but which bodes well for his future. “Pig” is a thoughtful, well-made movie for an audience primed for junk: It’s pearls before swine.
Directed by Michael Sarnoski. Written by Sarnoski and Vanessa Block. Starring Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, suburbs. 92 minutes. R (language and some violence).