Pig ★★★★

I always like hearing Nicolas Cage talk about acting – partly because he makes a lot of bizarre choices in both business and art that warrant explanation, but also because he cares a lot about his craft, speaks beautifully about his desire to bend/expand/challenge the discipline’s prevailing trends, and incorporates a lot of unusual ideas he draws from both film history and other art forms into his work. For example, he has spoken about wanting to break free from naturalism, taking ideas from silent film acting for some of his more outré performances. If I’ve felt frustrated with Cage in recent years, it’s because I sometimes feel that when he’s in any movie with loftier ambitions than a bad DTV thriller, he’s mostly called upon to provide fodder for a “NICOLAS CAGE FREAKS OUT!!!!” YouTube supercut. I enjoy watching Nicolas Cage freak out, but I’d like to see him try other things too. So I’m thankful for Pig, in which he gives an understated, internalized performance that is mostly communicated through body language and in which every small gesture matters. In a recent interview, he said that he drew inspiration from haiku: “With Japanese haiku, you have 5-7-5 syllables. [They] convey the space between. It’s evocative and those spaces become more meaningful than the words themselves. The way Michael wrote the script, I felt it would lend itself to the kind of film performance I wanted to get back to.” I love when Cage talks like this. What other actor is comparing their performance style to haiku?

Movie stars carry a lot of baggage, and oftentimes you can trace the arc of their careers through the roles they play. I remember seeing Snowden at a packed Cheap Tuesday screening and the audience laughed when Cage showed up. I don’t think I fully understood until then the extent to which Cage (who a few years earlier was still starring in Jerry Bruckheimer movies) had become a joke, although clearly Oliver Stone did. If I remember correctly, Cage played an eccentric, truth-telling intelligence official who had been consigned to some dusty corner of the NSA building where he could be ignored. Stone knew he needed a forsaken man whom society had deemed too crazy – and possibly too brilliant – for the main room, and he chose Cage. Now in Pig he plays a master chef who reigned atop Portland’s fine-dining world before cutting himself off from society and retiring to the woods. Any similarity between this character and the Oscar-winning actor who starred in the 2014 remake of Left Behind is surely intentional.

When you know how much Cage cares about his craft, it raises a lot of questions about why he makes so many tenth-rate movies. Yes, we know that he owed a huge debt to the taxman, but one thing that makes Cage’s interviews fascinating is that he will never admit to making movies solely for money. He talks about his decision to parlay his Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas into a run of big-budget action movies as an experiment to see if an actor like him could create art in that context. More recently he has taken to calling himself “the California Klaus Kinski,” suggesting that he is drawn to exploitation films because they allow him to experiment in ways that studio movies cannot. Once he said that he likes to work a lot because when he’s not busy he becomes self-destructive. I wish he made better movies more often, but whatever the case, he should be admired for building a career that is indifferent to any narrative of how either an Oscar-winning actor or a box-office superstar should behave, whether that means making a low-budget action movie or working with Paul Schrader or Sion Sono. Pig has a scene that’s clearly intended to have extratextual significance: Cage shows up disheveled at Portland’s high-class restaurant du jour, which we learn is being run by a onetime employee of his. Cage reminds his former protégé that he once dreamed of opening an English-style pub. The younger man says that a pub was a bad business opportunity. Cage says: “You’re not real. You get that, right? None of this is real. The critics aren’t real. The customers aren’t real, because this isn’t real. You aren’t real. Why do you care about these people? They don’t care about you. None of them. They don’t even know you, because you haven’t shown them. Every day you’ll wake up and there’ll be less of you. You live your life for them, and they don’t even see you.”

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