At one time—the era of Moonstruck, of Leaving Las Vegas, of Wild at Heart—many people thought Nicolas Cage was the greatest living American actor. Then, perhaps as a means of financing his purchase of multiple castles, he began accepting roles indiscriminately and performing in them indifferently. His huge international bankability as an action star probably didn’t help—all he really had to do was show up and collect the money. It became hard to have any idea of who this performer—this habitual maker of questionable choices—actually was. It became harder to love him.
A pig now brings the old Nicolas Cage back to us. In Pig, a strange and wonderful movie as direct as its stubby little title, Cage plays a hermit, a woolly mammoth of a man who lives alone, or nearly alone, in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. His only companion, the only one he cares to have, is a truffle-hunting pig whose name we never learn, if she even has one. The movie’s first eight minutes or so establish the warmth of this duo’s relationship. With her gentle snuffling, the pig helps the man locate truffles as the sun streams through the cathedral of conifers around them. Her fur is red and surprisingly soft-looking; she has a swingy, tassel-capped tail. Back at his ramshackle little hut, our disheveled loner rewards her with a nicely prepared dinner of something-or-other. He makes a little tart for himself, folding nubs of hard butter into a pile of flour, a few granules of which float down around his pig comrade’s radiant, upturned face like a benediction. The very beginning of Pig is so tranquil and restorative you might wish it could go on forever, or somehow be repackaged as a sleep aid, a sort of visual lullaby to calm a racing brain. (The cinematographer here is Patrick Scola.)
But Pig is actually a thriller, of sorts—at least until it twists and becomes something else, a sort of guidebook for really thinking about the shape you want your life to take. Our hermit—we’ll later learn his name is Rob—trades his truffles for necessary goods. His dealer is a wanna-be slickster who shows up at Rob’s door in a yellow Camaro, his Gucci buckle glinting obviously in the sunlight, an affront to all that is decent and good. Amir (Alex Wolff) is just trying to get ahead in the truffle-dealing world, for reasons that will become clear later. His exchanges with Rob are terse to the point of being hostile.
And so, when Rob’s adored companion is pignapped one night, Amir doesn’t have much interest in helping, though Rob, distraught and angry, persuades him with an authoritative growl. Amir and Rob make a journey to the city, meaning Portland. Amir knows so little about Rob, other than that he supplies superior truffles.
(An alert for animal lovers, and please note that what follows is a spoiler, so skip this part if you’re so inclined: The pignapping sequence is the most upsetting scene in the movie, and though it’s discreet and mercifully brief, the pig does not get the happy ending you might hope for. But there is no on-camera or prolonged distress. Her demise is treated respectfully, and she’s mourned appropriately. Watch, or not, according to your own judgment.)
But as they search for the lost pig, bits of Rob’s past life come together like a mosaic. He wasn’t always an unkempt, crabby mountain man. In a past life he knew people, important people in the food world. Something has happened to push him out of that world—there’s some painful experience he’s burying—but he also has an exceptionally strong sense of himself. At one point, Rob questions a man who has built a lucrative empire making and selling things he doesn’t care about, warning him about the future that awaits: “Every day you wake up, there’ll be less of you.” He adds, “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.”
This is primo Nicolas Cage dialogue, inquisitive and soul-deep, the kind of stuff he was born to say. To hear and watch him in this movie is like greeting an old friend. Pig seems to have come out of nowhere, but we’re lucky to have it. The director is Michael Sarnoski; it’s his first feature, co-written with one of the movie’s producers, Vanessa Block. Pig is about grief and our ability to live with it, even if we can never exactly recover from it. It’s about loss, but it also reminds us that people and animals we’ve loved stay with us always.
And Cage is something to watch, every minute. As Rob, he’s bearded and unkempt but still radiant, a messy movie Jesus. His face is streaked with blood from more than one recent violent encounter, and his eyes speak of nothing but a reluctant acceptance that there are no easy answers, for anything. He’s not exactly tortured, but he is quizzical, an eternal seeker of truth as well as truffles. He’s mostly in a bad mood—but not in the movie’s loveliest scene, where he treks to a modest craftsman-style house, a house he used to live in long ago, now owned by someone else. He moves closer to it, drawn by soft, percussive notes being played on an instrument he doesn’t recognize. There’s a little boy in the backyard, playing a handpan, a thing that looks like a small overturned bowl. He asks if Rob wants to try it; Rob taps out a few notes and lets the sound fill him—Cage lets us see the sound filling him. This is a man making peace with his past, finding the portal via a sound he’s just learned to make. Pig is about a man and his pig, but it’s also about the process of making a life, one sound at a time, as you feel your way along. You may feel wise one minute, only to realize in the next that you’re completely lost. That’s your cue to listen for a sound you’ve never heard, and follow it. And if it means selling a castle or two, so be it.
Sign up for More to the Story, TIME’s weekly entertainment newsletter, to get the context you need for the pop culture you love.
- Taylor Swift Is TIME's 2023 Person of the Year
- Meet the Nation Builders
- Why Cell Phone Reception Is Getting Worse
- Column: It's Time to Scrap the Abraham Accords
- Israeli Family Celebrates Release of Hostage Grandmother
- In a New Movie, Beyoncé Finds Freedom
- The Top 100 Photos of 2023
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time