Culinary Mysticism

Michael Sarnoski’s “Pig”: A Review

Nicolas Cage: “I’m looking for a truffle pig. Someone stole it.”
Chef: “I don’t understand.”

The first words spoken in the trailer of Pig give us both the movie’s apparent premise, and what it knows will be our response. Is this John Wick, only substitute a pig for the dog, a retired chef for the retired hitman, and Nicolas Cage for Keanu Reeves? Who would watch such a movie other than a Cage completionist? The rest of the trailer tells us: we might not yet understand what unites a stolen pig, a yellow Camero, and a mausoleum, but this movie knows exactly what it’s doing. And the trailer is right. Pig, written and directed by the previously unknown Michael Sarnoski, is one of the best movies of the year, as well as that rare thing in cinema: a portrait of a truly good man.

Cage is, to be sure, the star of the show, excellent and unusually un-hammy as the quietly intense Robin Feld, who in search of his pig must return to the foodie-ridden Portland he long ago abandoned. But unlike with many of Cage’s recent offerings, he is not the only part of the movies worth watching. Rob’s sorrow, anger, and ardor are framed perfectly by the sympathetic cinematography — the camera hesitates with him at thresholds, falls to the ground when he is assaulted, lingers sensually on the dishes he prepares — and assisted by other skillful performances. Alex Wolff plays Amir, a millennial trying to break into the restaurant supply business and Rob’s unlikely sidekick; a stern Adam Arkin is Darius, Amir’s father and business competitor.

As for the story — well, it begins with a pignapping and culminates in an attempt to thaw Darius’s frozen heart, wielding only Amir’s recollections of childhood, Rob’s eidetic culinary memory, and their combined ability to plate rare fowl. In between, the viewer must accept the premise that the business of Portland haute cuisine is almost as cutthroat as that of New Jersey waste management. If we never quite forget the absurdity, the movie persuades us throughout that our disbelief is worth suspending. Its persuasiveness has two main sources. First, the twists and turns of the porcine plot go in entirely unexpected directions, but the storytelling never stumbles. Second, the gradual revelation of Rob’s character leaves him nevertheless always mysterious, until finally he emerges as a kind of culinary mystic.

The story owes its strange coherence to Sarnoski’s eclectic remixing of tropes and references. The first five minutes lull us in with a lush depiction of Rob’s life in the woods. A burbling stream, burring crickets, trees swaying in the wind, a pig snuffling in the dirt, flour cascading in the sunlight as a man kneads pastry dough — it could be a Terrence Malick film, or a “One Year in a Remote Oregon Cabin” YouTube video. Then the first tonal shift, when Amir drives up in a loud yellow car to pick up this week’s harvest. Soon city life intrudes even more forcefully, stealing Rob’s pig and knocking him over the head with a skillet. We find ourselves in something between a revenge flick and a road movie; a third of the way in, after visiting a series of figures in the Portland restaurant supply chain, our heroes wind up in a literally underground food service fight club. Here Rob admits to Amir (and to us) his past life as a preeminent chef, and allows his face to be bloodied and broken. With this last outburst, the violence stops.

At this point, while the genre plotlines are not forgotten — an hour in, Darius delivers a threatening speech worthy of a film noir villain — the movie’s tonal center again modulates. Amir and Rob have breakfast together, Rob gently correcting Amir’s french toast technique. Gradually Amir develops from a caricature of a millennial into a distinctive character: ambitious but earnest, overawed by his father, grieving over his mother, listening in the car to a tape of “How to Listen to Classical Music,” at least until Rob brusquely turns it off. Rob, too, is grieving, having retreated into the woods after he lost his wife fifteen years prior; and to find Rob’s pig, they eventually realize, they must appeal to Darius (Amir’s father), whose only happy memory happens to be of an evening spent with his wife at Rob’s old restaurant. The movie thus becomes an exploration of grief — how it divides us, but can also unite us.

Nicolas Cage and Alex Wolff in a scene of the movie

Yet as Amir’s choice of in-car listening suggests, Pig is also about art. When Rob and Amir dine at a ‘cutting-edge’ restaurant to interrogate the head chef, the question of artistic pretension becomes central, and the dialogue surreal (the lines quoted at the beginning are from this scene.) First, we get a glimpse of the restaurant’s offerings, an unappetizing concoction cloaked in smoke and mirrors. Then the head chef comes out, and Rob asks about his pig. The chef answers evasively: “Truffles are a key part of the whole concept of the winter menu, and they need to be the top of the line. So you understand. I have the utmost respect for you. Utmost.” Ignoring the implicit admission of guilt, Rob focuses on the winter menu: “What is the… concept?” The chef delivers a remarkably unpersuasive elevator pitch for local ingredients. Rob breaks down his defenses with a plea for the importance of culinary honesty, and for ignoring critical taste-makers; reminding the chef he should have opened the traditional English pub he always imagined. “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.”

This plea, made in a scene occurring exactly halfway through the movie, operates on multiple levels. It has the desired effect; the chef hands over the information needed. But it is not mere rhetoric on Rob’s part; to the contrary, it succeeds because it offers our first glimpse into Rob’s inner life. Too, it is among the movie’s most self-reflective moments. Robin Feld may be talking about restaurant menus, but Nicolas Cage and Michael Sarnoski are talking about movie plots. The critically acclaimed menu designed around locally sourced ingredients is autoethnographic unwatchable Oscar-bait; the dreamed-of English pub in downtown Portland is the genre-bending story of Pig.

Not that we should seek one-to-one correspondences between the plot of Pig and the paths by which Cage and Sarnoski came to make it. The point is almost the opposite: unimaginatively confessional art, whether direct or veiled, cannot truly lay bare the soul of the artist. Pig is less autobiography than myth, as the choices of names suggest: “Amir,” meaning the prince, and his father “Darius,” the king, struggling for control of a restaurant supply empire; “Eurydice,” wife of Orpheus, the restaurant whose chef Rob tries to lead back from spiritual death; “Hestia,” goddess of the hearth, Rob’s old restaurant which he and his wife made their spiritual home. The story, too, is mythic in structure, arranged chiastically around seven meals. First, Rob shares with his pig what an intertitle calls a “rustic mushroom tart.” Later he tries to trade a food-cart dish for a lead on the pig, and is rebuffed. Amir’s french toast seems nothing special, except, as the second part’s intertitle tells us, the recipe is “mom’s.” Fourth and centrally, Eurydice’s “deconstructed scallops,” the picture of empty pretension. Fifth, while gathering ingredients Rob offers Amir a bakery cookie, an act of communion reversing the failed food-cart transaction; then they serve Darius a dish he and his wife (Amir’s mother) had eaten almost two decades earlier, triggering a Proustian flood of memory. Finally, in the penultimate scene, a dejected Amir and Rob share a brownie in a roadside diner — more mediocre, we are sure, than the opening rustic tart, but given the circumstances more comforting.

The classical allusions and formal elegance suggest that the problem with Amir’s tapes was not their choice of music, but their emphasis on the cultivation of taste. ‘Taste’ compares food to art, but fails to take the metaphor seriously. Pig reminds us that aesthetic appreciation is not the only or most important aspect of either; they offer also sustenance, communion, memory, condolence. Robin Feld (the name means “bright-shining field”) is less an autistic Jiro dreaming of sushi, than a saintly Babette hosting a communal feast. As he confides to Amir late in the movie, in a religiously fraught line: “I remember every meal I ever cooked. I remember every person I ever served.”

There is no contradiction between Rob being something like a saint and very much an angry old man. He ends the movie as he began, in exile in the woods, because today’s Portland, today’s world, offers nowhere else for a true artist to go. The times are out of joint. As Darius warns him: “There’s nothing here for you anymore. There’s really nothing here for most of us.” At one point Rob tells Amir how the city will one day be wiped out by an earthquake and resulting tsunami. To see the world from such a lofty vantage point may seem misanthropic, yet Rob does not hate Portland; like Socrates, who dismisses outright the idea of fleeing Athens for Thessaly, he sees it from the standpoint of eternity, and so both loves it and knows it to be deeply broken:

Amir: “If the city floods we can always go out to Mount Hood.”
Rob: “Hood’s an active volcano.”
Amir: “Well I’m not fucking moving to Seattle.”
Rob: “Fuck Seattle.”

In case we have not yet understood Rob’s culinary mysticism, the final thirty seconds lay it bare. Sitting alone in his cabin, he listens to a cassette recording his dead wife made for him in which she sings a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” a song that “reminds me of you.” The context strangely purges Springsteen’s lyrics of all their sexuality, leaving only eroticism. “I don’t fuck my pig,” Rob retorts early in the movie, but nevertheless, as he later admits, “I love her.” Rob is on fire with love for the created world, and if he carries also a deep sadness and anger, it is because he has lost the only person who saw this fire clearly, and thus so saw him. The power of the film, Pig suggests, is that it lets us see it too.

Salvator R. Tarnmoor is a pseudonymous poet and essayist.

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