Is it fair to call Nicolas Cage a film icon? Not in the religious sense of the word, but more the idea that an icon represents a concept. 

Take a look at his filmography for a moment. You’ll first notice a fairly astonishing amount of good to great films he’s made. Red Rock West. Leaving Las Vegas. Lord of War. The Rock. Mandy. If any other actor had done just one of those films, they’d be looked at as an all-timer. The other thing you’ll notice on said filmography? A titanic amount of crap. Some of it was due to simply picking the wrong projects. Some of it was due to fallout from a high-profile tax case, and an urgent need to pay off both the tax bills and enormous legal fees.

He’s certainly prolific, but is Cage a good actor, though? He’s certainly a polarizing one, moreso than nearly any other film performer of the last forty years. I was curious about how people viewed Cage and, using rigorous scientific methodology, I conducted a poll on Facebook. The responses I received were…um…varied, ranging from the amusingly terse* to miniature essays about how Cage is less an actor and more a movie star.

Just a few of the comments were:

  • “I LOVE him in Moonstruck. I think he’s pretty much perfect.”
  • “But personally, he’s not an actor I tend to seek out specifically.”
  • “I think Nicolas Cage has created a little cottage industry of making and remaking two characters – bulged eyes CRAZY excited Nick Cage or slow, slightly southern, slightly sad, long-thoughted Nick Cage.”
  • “Nic Cage, to me, is an interesting actor willing to be in any movie that they’re willing to pay him.”
  • “I think Face/Off was the beginning of the end.”
  • “I love him. I don’t even like movies. I just love him.”
  • “I have seen him give a performance that is absolutely amazing in every way, and I have seen him turn into 100% processed cheese product. And I think his performances are all exactly what is needed at the time.”
  • “You can easily see how he is influenced by something (or someone) for a period of time, he becomes that, and then it wears off in favor of something else. He probably thinks it makes him chameleonesque, yet to me he’s kinda douchey in real life. There’s nothing wrong with something that purports to clean out a woman’s vagina per se, yet they also tend to adversely affect the vaginal environment by messing with Ph and so on.”**

Bearing all of that in mind, a new Nicolas Cage film reminds me of sorting candy after an evening of trick-or-treating. You might receive Color Out of Space, which is the equivalent of a full-sized Snickers bar. Conversely, you might receive The Wicker Man, which is like a baggie of candy corn. Cage’s latest film Pig has been released, and it was with equal measures of excitement and dread that I sat down to view it.

When we first meet Rob (Cage), it’s a glimpse of his day, a day that’s likely identical to hundreds of others. His job, if you could call it that, is truffle foraging. Rob ekes out a solitary existence deep within the woods of Oregon. Accompanied by his beloved pig, Rob tramps through the wilderness in search of truffles. Once the day’s activities are finished, he returns to an exceedingly modest cabin. Inside is a tape player, and a cassette tape he cannot bring himself to listen to.

Every Thursday, Amir arrives. He’s a young man driving a bright yellow Corvette, and he buys truffles from Rob. The plan, as far as Amir is concerned, is for him to become a big deal in Portland’s restaurant scene. He’ll do that by first cultivating an image of access. Sophistication, though blasting classical music from his Corvette might not be ideal. Second, he’ll build a business that’s invaluable, where he supplies ingredients to the hottest eateries in the area. If success means he has to drive out to the ass-end of the woods and buy truffles from a long-haired dude who might be crazy, then that’s what he’ll do.

Nothing changes, until everything changes. In the middle of the night, Rob is viciously attacked. He can hear the shrieks of his pig, desperate footsteps, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. He’s left in a damaged cabin with no money, no prospects, no pig. What can he do? There’s only one option, and Rob leaves his wild and solitary home.

Someone must know where his pig is. Rob trudges to a small diner and calls Amir, who (extremely reluctantly) agrees to help. Their investigation leads to another truffle hunter, to a pair of sketchy addicts, to Portland itself and an underground community of restaurant workers, and to Darius (Adam Arkin), Amir’s far more successful father. Someone must know where his pig is. 

The first thing to get out of the way is, Pig is not Nicolas Cage’s John Wick. It’s not an action movie and he’s not out to Make The Bastards Pay. The physical violence that does exist in the film is brief and messy. So if it’s not a full-throttle revenge flick, then what is it? I’m not sure, as Pig is a movie that’s confounding, fascinating, and sad. 

Pig is director Michael Sarnoski’s first film, and he came out of the gate hard with this one. His control of tone is impressive, with quiet moments in both the remote wilderness and the cultured restaurant scene of Portland. For the most part, he shows us a grounded world with grounded characters, yet every once in a while, things go the tiniest bit sideways. That keeps us off-balance, never quite sure what to expect, and Nicolas Cage’s Rob moves through it with stoic single-mindedness.

Sarnoski also wrote the screenplay, and like John Wick, it’s about grief. However, the Keanu Reeves action film is more about attempting to achieve catharsis, and whether or not we should feel sympathy for a monster. Pig goes in a different direction. Sarnoski focuses on the numbness we feel while we’re in mourning, and how the process can remove a number of barriers. The real violence here is emotional, and whether he means to or not, Rob inflicts violence upon others with simple, matter-of-fact statements. There’s a scene where Rob encounters a former employee, Finway (David Knell), who runs his own boutique restaurant. In the course of obtaining information, Rob questions Finway, who has sold out his own dreams for a shot at culinary stardom. Watch that scene, watch how Rob evenly informs Finway that nobody truly cares about his restaurant, his food, him. Does Rob mean to be cruel? I don’t think so. He’s spent years in solitude wrapped in a cocoon of sadness, and he simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to be tactful. It’s a well-written scene that advances the plot, shows character, and explores themes.

There are smart actors here, all delivering performances that feel of a piece. I liked David Knell’s portrayal of Finway. His veneer of sophistication slowly crumbling in the face of Rob’s calm onslaught was impressive. Alex Wolff, whom you might have seen give very good performances in Hereditary and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, continues to build up an impressive record of performances. His Amir is just smart enough to grasp that he’s mediocre. He’ll never be as successful, as dashing, as ruthless as his father. So he hides that mediocrity behind flashy cars, nice suits that don’t fit terribly well, and classical music blaring from the car stereo. He’s playing a con game, one that sooner or later can only end in failure.

And then there’s Nicolas Cage as Rob. Is his performance a good one? It is, though it’s more subdued and natural than a number of his past work. Cage feels like an actor who genuinely appreciates kabuki theater and has appropriated those stylized performances in his past roles.*** Here he’s going the other way, using his physicality to play a sad hulk of a man. 

Permit me a slight digression as we talk about Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta for a moment. In early scenes, Weaving puffs out his chest and throws his shoulders back in the best swashbuckling tradition. Yet in his more intimate scenes with Natalie Portman, Weaving’s shoulders are slumped. He has more nervous energy. It’s a great performance that’s less about vocal delivery and more about body control. Cage is doing the same thing. There are no weird vocal tics, no arms flapping around like an overly caffeinated bird. As Rob, he speaks evenly, moves slowly. You can see in his eyes hopelessness. He has the gaze of a man trapped on a plane that’s about to crash. It’s strong and memorable work.

Is it fair to call Nicolas Cage a film icon? Yeah, it is. He was part of the independent film boom, part of the slick and soulless blockbusters of the 90s, an early adopter of superhero movies, and a star that audiences seem to have left behind. His choices have been remarkably bad in the past, but when he’s chosen the right script and the right director, he can measure up to anybody. Cage has burned so many bridges and pissed away so much goodwill that I worry people will sleep on Pig and treat it like a cheap cash-grab. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Pig is a special little film, one that Cage should be proud of. 

*In answering my question of, “Do you think Nicolas Cage is a good actor,” one person replied with a simple, “No.”

**This comment was a journey!***Though in some of his…um…let’s go with less challenging films, maybe Cage gets bored. While Bruce Willis reliably sleepwalks through his direct-to-video films, Cage seems to deal with it through eccentricity. He needs a director to challenge him, and he’s wasted in a typical movie.