Plus: Why it’s so funny that Lebron James’s ‘Space Jam’ reboot isn’t playing in China
The trailer and resultant joke-pitch for Pig have led to the film being described as “something like Taken, but with Nicolas Cage and a truffle-hunting pig.” And that’s not wrong, exactly, but it is incomplete at best, and misleading at worst. It’s a bit like the ads for Drive that promised an action-packed car chase movie along the lines of The Fast and the Furious rather than a quiet meditation on the nature of modern loneliness and how excellence can exacerbate isolation.
Cage stars as Rob, a long-haired and filthy individual who lives in a shack out in the woods and whose only companion is a good-natured truffle-hunting pig with whom he shares his bed like a friendly dog. He and his pig dig up the valuable mushrooms to sell to Amir (Alex Wolff), a procurer for the fine-dining establishments that dominate Portland’s foodie scene. When a couple of junkies break into Rob’s shack to rob him of his prize pig, Rob enlists Amir as his ride in order to retrieve his porcine pal.
The pig is the Macguffin, and as far as Macguffins go, it’s a good one: It’s a cute little gal, and her squeals as she is stolen are legitimately terrifying. But a Macguffin is just a device to take us on a journey, and the journey here is fascinating. Pig takes us on a tour through the dark and the light of food preparation, the ins and outs of the shadier side of the hospitality business, and the personality types of those who spend their days preparing $200 meals for high-class swells.
Turns out that Rob is a famous chef, a legend in the Portland scene. His name unlocks more doors than Amir’s ever could; indeed, Amir himself recalls a meal that was so exquisite, so delightful, that his mother (who has committed suicide) and his father (who is himself an unscrupulous procurer of ingredients) spoke of Rob’s cooking for years after the fact. Great food isn’t just about nutrition or nourishment; it isn’t just about taste; it’s about companionship, the memories we make and attach to it.
Similarly, Pig isn’t really about the pig; it’s about the ways in which food can change lives, can shape lives, can save lives. More than that, it’s about greatness and excellence and what being around such excellence does. The memories such greatness creates. The way it inspires people to be more than they are.
And the way it can deform people.
Writer-director Michael Sarnoski’s expedition through the heart of darkness that is fine dining is both fascinating and mysterious; he does not hold our hand as Rob rediscovers his old haunts, and we share Amir’s confusion at what is happening in certain points. There is brutality and anger and resentment in this world simmering just below the surface, a lid chattering against a pot as the steam inside gets ready to blow. Rob’s face bears the brunt of much of that anger.
But there is also compassion and love. At one point, Rob reminds a former protégé of what he really wanted to do with his talents, his skills. It wasn’t to engage in frou-frou molecular gastronomy, with its wafting clouds of vapor designed to trick the eyes and the nose into thinking something interesting was happening. It was simpler and sparser, but no less profound in its ability to create connection with diners.
Nicolas Cage has emerged as a bit of a conundrum in recent years because he is in a great many movies, most of them being of very low quality. For every Mandy or Pig there’s a Primal or Kill Chain. But there’s no doubt he’s one of our great actors, and the quiet soulfulness of Pig owes much of its power to Cage’s brooding intensity, his ability to understand and tap into the power of his own stillness. There’s a stark contrast between Pig, with its natural lightning, its comfort with quietude, and its confident-but-sparse set design and something like Willy’s Wonderland, in which Cage fights a group of demonically possessed animatronic figures.
Even in Willy’s Wonderland—a movie now on Hulu in which Cage has, and I’m not exaggerating here, maybe two lines of dialogue despite being onscreen for most of the film—Cage is always interesting to look at. He’s always making interesting choices. Sure, Willy’s Wonderland is lazily plotted and yes, no actor in that picture should ever be on the big screen again, and, fine, the action is directed like a mental incompetent saw Crank and thought “I could do this.”
It’s a bad movie, is my point, but Cage isn’t bad in it, and you can imagine a better version of the picture—with its fussy structure and repeated shots of Cage engaged in menial labor at the behest of inbred hillbillies feeding a demonic weasels the souls of passersby—that, once Cage’s participation had been secured, was reshaped slightly in a way that might have at least lent it something more interesting to say about late-stage Cage.
Luckily you don’t have to imagine a good version of Pig because Pig is already really good—possibly the best new movie I’ve seen this year.
Make sure to check out my take on the Loki finale before listening to next week’s episode of Across the Movie Aisle, in which we’re going to discuss Disney+’s latest MCU offering. And sign up for Bulwark+ if you want to participate in the comments here or there.
Another Sign Hollywood Needs to Cut China Loose
Look, I’m going to admit up front that what I’m about to write is deeply petty, and you may think less of me for it. I wouldn’t blame you if you did.
But I find it absolutely hilarious that despite LeBron James’s simping for China and his attacks on fellow NBA employee Daryl Morey for daring to highlight the oppression of people in Hong Kong, his new movie Space Jam: A New Legacyhas yet to secure a release date in that country. LeBron James marketed himself as a man of conscience and a voice against police violence in recent years, dutifully violated that conscience and silenced his voice while China engages in literal ethnic cleansing and clamps down on freedoms in Hong Kong, and got … nothing for it in return.
Disney is getting a taste of the same medicine now, following the failure to secure a release date for Black Widow in China. While Black Widow is putting up record post-pandemic numbers in the United States and Disney is delighted by the tens of millions it’s pulling in via the Premier Access program, there’s no word on when, or if, the movie is going to get a release in China. Whether this has to do with Eternals director Chloé Zhao’s statements about growing up in China or something else is, at this point, unclear.
The simple fact of the matter is that it’s already too late. Black Widow is almost certainly available all over Chinese pirating sites as we speak. Space Jam: A New Legacy will be right behind it. If these movies get releases in Chinese theaters at all, they’ll do a fraction of the business they otherwise might have. But there could be an upside here!
“The film was made for China, and its delay or non-approval is a major catastrophe,” Chris Fenton, author of Feeding the Dragon, told me. “However, the silver lining is both the NBA and Hollywood start to believe the risk/reward of China is no longer balanced, and that we must go back to supporting the foundation of free speech & creativity, unrestrained by any sort of censorship.”
Look: The Chinese market may be the fastest growing in the world and it may have been a source of tremendous revenue for studios in recent years. But if LeBron James and the MCU find themselves personae non gratae, and if F9 can experience a disastrous decline because of a slip-up by a supporting actor in an interview, the lesson here is obvious: Hollywood needs to get out of the China business. They need to consider whatever revenue they can scrape out of the Middle Kingdom as a bonus rather than a viable economic strategy. Because relying on a partner who wants to see you fail—and make no mistake, China wants to see Hollywood fail and wants to supplant Hollywood with its own brand of big-budget spectacle—is a recipe for disaster.
Assigned Viewing: Rick and Morty
Full disclosure: I’m only two seasons in. But I’m assigning it because I really do think you can have a better sense of what Disney+ is going for in Loki if you watch this Cartoon Network series about a grandfather (Rick) and grandson (Morty) who travel the multiverse getting into all sorts of misadventures.
It is absurd in the way that the best shows from the Adult Swim block of programming always have been (e.g., Mr. Meeseeks, a being that you can call into existence to help solve a problem but can’t lower one of the character’s golf handicap, inducing a mental breakdown that devolves into a hostage crisis at a fine-dining establishment) and weirdly sentimental and touching. At its heart, Rick and Morty is about a genius who thinks he hates everyone until his idiot family’s efforts to crack through protective shell make him realize how alone he is.
But it’s also one of the smartest parodies of the current cinematic-televisual landscape going and despite the often-improvised feel of the show has some of the tightest, joke-packed scripts I can think of. Just laugh after laugh. Highly recommended, check out the first four seasons on HBO Max and Hulu. The fifth season is airing now on Cartoon Network and should be on those services in a few months.