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Pig is in UK cinemas from 20 August. 

The recent documentary The Truffle Hunters followed several elderly men in Italy’s Piedmont region. They and their beloved dogs search for rare truffles in local forests; they sell them to agents who supply them to upmarket restaurants, or auction them at fabulous prices, while the hunters themselves lead extremely modest rural lives. It helps to have seen this film to know that the situation imagined in Michael Sarnoski’s Pig is not entirely fanciful. Michael Sarnoski’s drama stars Nicolas Cage as one such truffler, considerably less lovable than his Italian counterparts, and aided not by a dog but a pig, a creature famously adept at locating the fragrant treasures.

A hirsute hermit living in an Oregon forest, Rob has chosen to return to nature – or even to the 19th century, given his penchant for grubby long johns redolent of the Gold Rush (he effectively is a gold prospector, given the value of the nuggets he unearths). He favours near silence, militantly uncommunicative with pushy young food trader Amir (Alex Wolff), but enjoys comradely intimacy with his pig, a charismatic russet snuffler. Rob’s affection for the beast is only marginally more demonstrative than Farmer Hoggett’s in Babe – he doesn’t even give it a name – but it’s clear that what Rob feels is love, or as close to it as he’s willing to feel for any living creature.

When the pig is violently stolen, the film reveals its key trope: the secret past life dramatically exposed. It was used recently in Bob Odenkirk vehicle Nobody and before that in A History of Violence (2005) – in both, quiet suburban males turn out to have been ruthless action men – but goes back at least to Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947). We assume that Rob must have been just such a mean hombre, as he heads for the city to track down the hognappers; this seems to be confirmed by a bizarre scene in a secret subterranean realm beneath Portland, where Rob stands unflinching beneath a merciless shower of blows.

Pig (2021)

As it turns out, Rob’s past was quite different: he was star chef of a restaurant named Hestia (Greek goddess of the hearth), and a master of simple but sublime cuisine, before whom other chefs can but quake. His enduring prestige is seen when he and Amir get a table in exclusive establishment Eurydice (Rob is Orpheus, on a mission to the underworld), where the resident chef, a mere pretender (a nice turn by David Knell), squirms before Rob’s snarled home truths about what truly matters in life and cuisine.

First-timer Sarnoski – previous credits include the TV series Fight Night Legacy (2012) – makes a point of militant opposition to pretension. Rob represents rooted integrity, his frugal mushroom tart contrasted with Eurydice’s ‘deconstructed scallops’, if you please. Similarly, Amir is shown as ridiculous with his brash yellow car and popular classics on a radio station that features a parodically posh Englishman braying about the eternal values. The film could itself could be accused of pretension, with its classical allusions, try-hard philosophising and culinary-themed chapter headings; but then, Pig knowingly wallows in its absurdity.

Alongside Cage and the too insistently manic Wolff, the show is discreetly stolen by Adam Arkin as Amir’s father – a man who has gained all but lost his soul, and for whom Rob again cooks the meal that once stirred him transcendentally. As for Cage, his performance has been hailed as a rediscovery of nuance following his long commitment to all-out derangement. But his glowering sotto voce delivery, in a cranky late-period Clint Eastwood register, shows that minimalism can be as much an excess as its opposite. Cage puts his more overt eccentricity into visual presentation (one guesses these are his choices as much as Sarnoski’s), depicting Rob as a bedraggled hobo-prophet who never changes his sackcloth-like clothes nor washes off the caked blood, a walking hygiene infraction amid Portland’s pristine tablecloths.

In tone, Pig recalls one of Paul Schrader’s more intimate films (Affliction, 1997; First Reformed, 2017), infused with the ruralism of Kelly Reichardt or of Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (2018) – as suggested by the opening’s forested darkness, shot in hyper-painterly fashion by Pat Scola. Sarnoski deserves credit for audacity, using the promise of a generic Cage actioner to sneak in what proves to be a contemplative, lyrical film about solitude, self-sufficiency and the real value of taste. It’s a strange film that promises John Wick but delivers something closer to Ratatouille.