On paper, Michael Sarnoski's “Pig” sounds almost absurd: a man goes to the nearest city to find his beloved stolen pig. But the movie’s outward simplicity and absurdity belie its layered spiritual depths. Even the story mirrors a parable told in the Hebrew Bible, flipped on its head: a very rich man who has more than he needs steals the beloved livestock of a man who has nothing. The Biblical parable is told to a king as both an indictment of the king’s actions and an invitation for the king to repent his sin.
“Pig” is that parable from the poor man’s perspective, an invitation to live inside the head of a man who is not interested in outward signs of success or strength, because both are meaningless in the face of loss. Written and directed by Sarnoski, "Pig" is about exposing weakness and vulnerability, not as a means for exploitation, but as an invitation for people to meet where their vulnerabilities intersect. In doing so, they come away with a better understanding of one another, their souls enriched.
Robin “Rob” Feld (Nicolas Cage) lives a monastic existence in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. The trees soar like cathedral columns, belying the squalor of the shack he shares with his truffle pig. As with the poor man in the Biblical parable, Rob loves his pig. He lets her sleep in his cabin. He talks to her softly, his voice is rusty but gentle, praising her for her good work as he unearths truffles from the humus on the forest floor, and he shares the food he cooks with her. The camera is slow and steady as it examines Rob’s humble surroundings: his life is balanced just the way he likes it.
Rob’s truffle buyer Amir (Alex Wolff) is everything Rob is not: young, rich, a fast talker who wears expensive watches. Amir projects an image of self-assuredness that contrasts with Rob’s quiet existence. The self-assuredness is a front for how Amir is young, inexperienced, and competing with his own father in a cutthroat business supplying food to high-end restaurants. Amir doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He calls Rob’s sow a “boy.” He assures Rob that he can get them a table at one of the currently popular restaurants, then has to beg a favor from one of the restaurant’s workers because he doesn’t have the connections to actually get a table. He’s taken aback when he learns what everyone else around him in Portland already knows: that Rob was once a highly acclaimed chef before he disappeared into the woods. Amir’s strong front makes him appear even more ignorant. He's the kind of person the book of Proverbs would call a “fool” because of his need to promote himself and his own accomplishments.
To Amir, Rob seems crazy to live in the forest without hot water or electricity. But what Amir doesn’t understand is that Rob chose to live the way he does because when he’s in the middle of the woods, he knows exactly where he stands in the universe. Money and fame—both illusions, according to Buddhist teaching—are gone in the wilderness, replaced by the very real dirt and trees and wild animals. Nothing in Portland will last: Rob tells Amir about the earthquake due to hit the Pacific Northwest that will topple trees and buildings alike, leaving the unlucky survivors in its wake to deal with the ensuing tsunami. Portland’s high-end restaurants, with their short-lived seasonal menus, are temporary. Prosperity is temporary. Portland itself is temporary. Not even the high ground is safe: when Amir floats the idea of earthquake survivors fleeing to the mountains, Rob reminds him that nearby Mount Hood is an active volcano. Another Biblical parable excoriates a rich man for building himself barns to hold his riches, because he won’t be able to preserve any of it when disaster strikes, or when he dies; he’s just as vulnerable as those who are poorer than him. Rob understands this lesson. Why pretend to be secure if it’s all an illusion?
Rob remembers everyone he’s served in his old kitchen, and every meal he’s cooked for them, and he remembers that most of those people didn’t care about him for who he was, only about the opportunity to say that they had eaten at Robin Feld’s restaurant. Where Amir sees the city as a place to become more important, to “keep up appearances,” Rob sees the city he left behind as being full of people who hide their weaknesses with temporary things like clout and money. He left that world behind.
Rob’s return to Portland to find his stolen pig is another leap into vulnerability. He doesn’t bother to clean himself up before he goes. The handheld camera shakes—Rob's been knocked off balance by the robbery, and by his return to the city he’d abandoned. He looks as though he smells bad. He’s asked repeatedly if he needs medical attention for the dried blood on his face. Amir is embarrassed to be seen with him, worried that he won’t be able to “keep up the appearances” he values so much. Rob walks over Amir’s concerns and into high-end restaurants just as he is, looking for the next person who can tell him where his pig was taken. He looks as desperate as he feels; no point in putting up a front when the pig he loves is at stake. Rob is direct with everyone he meets, often to the point of rudeness. But he’s honest, both about his needs and about how he feels, and he expresses that honesty through his appearance: he looks the way he feels. He’s also vulnerable, and he knows that his vulnerability is a keener weapon than any violent action he could commit.
Rob repeatedly puts himself in situations where he’s weak, and in so doing, encourages others to meet that weakness with kindness, or at the very least, help. He crashes an underground fighting ring run by cooks and chefs, and instead of joining a fight, he stands up to one of the fighters and takes a savage beating without throwing a single punch himself—an extreme version of Jesus’ policy to “turn the other cheek” when someone harms you. Amir quips offhandedly to a chef that Rob is Buddhist—it’s unclear if the line is a joke, or an excuse for Rob’s behavior, or true, or all three at once—but Rob’s attitude toward the Portland culinary scene is almost that of a bodhisattva: patient and enduring, as though he achieved enlightenment when he abandoned the city all those years ago. If the forest outside Portland is Nirvana, then Rob has delayed his return, nudging the other lost souls around him toward their own self-acceptance and enlightenment. The culinary world of the movie is posturing, macho, aggressive. Rob cuts through the heart of the city’s food culture by refusing to engage with its militant attitudes. His vulnerability knocks all he encounters off their own balance, leaving them unsure what to do other than to help him.
Not all of Rob’s encounters involve physical vulnerability; he deals in emotional vulnerability as well. One of the restaurants he visits is run by a chef named Finway (David Knell), who is politely shocked to find a man covered in dirt and blood in his minimalist white restaurant, then dazzled when he realizes exactly who Rob is, even though Finway is a big name himself. He’s caught up in the thrill of fame that Rob no longer values, even as he’s embarrassed to admit that Rob had once fired him from an entry-level job. Rob remembers Finway, including the circumstances of the firing, but he doesn’t care about Finway’s starstruck gaze, nor about his embarrassment. Instead, Rob focuses on Finway’s past dreams, reminding him that he’d wanted to open a British-style pub. Finway had buried his unfashionable dream in favor of opening a trendy restaurant with deconstructed dishes made from foraged local foods. Rob sits at a clean table, covered in the same dirt in which the food on the plate in front of him had grown, telling his former employee that the polish of his trendy restaurant is less a personal achievement than an attempt to garner approval, a trophy that sings in empty harmony with Amir’s need to keep up appearances. Finway bursts into tears in the middle of his own dining room, rendered weak and changed by the cold shock of truth that Rob tells.
Rob’s search culminates, not in a physical fight, nor an emotional confrontation in which he has the upper hand, but in an act of desperate, deliberate, disarming weakness. Amir’s father Darius (Adam Arkin) had Rob’s pig stolen in an attempt to undermine his son’s business—an exploitation of the fact that his son had been too free with his trade secrets in a cutthroat business world that takes advantage of any weakness shown. When Rob finds Darius, the thief threatens to turn the pig to bacon should Rob ever bother him again, doubling-down on strong-man tactics meant to punish anyone who might threaten his own business. Instead of making threats, or attempting to steal the pig back, Rob opens himself up in an audacious act of vulnerability, returning with Amir to his father’s house armed with wine and ingredients for dinner.
When he prepares the food, Rob washes his hands with reverence; he’s refused to clean himself up for anyone else, but he won’t contaminate the food. His intentions are pure. Time slows down and the handheld camera steadies itself while he cooks. This meal is an act of love, in keeping with another Biblical teaching: love your enemies, and feed them when they are hungry. Darius had eaten with his now-dead wife at Rob’s restaurant before Rob abandoned Portland. Rob cooks him the same meal that he’d made back then, paired with the same wine. Darius hadn’t known or cared who Rob was when he had the pig stolen, but Rob remembered Darius, the meal he’d made him, and how that meal had felt: a moment of brightness for an otherwise unhappy family. Rob’s dinner is an act of extreme vulnerability on Rob’s part, as the pig's life is in jeopardy if Darius follows through with his threat when Rob returns.
Rob risks rejection once again by making the meal, but he already knows what it is like to serve people who do not care about him as a person. It is better than any coercive act, because it is an invitation for Darius himself to be vulnerable in return, to remember a good meal that he had shared with his wife once, to understand the depths of Rob’s loss of his pig and the lengths to which he is willing to go to retrieve her. Rob won’t get his pig back, but his meal prompts an act of contrition on Darius’ part—the thief, like Finway in his restaurant before him, is moved to tears.
The film concludes with both men having wept together in Darius’ office, Rob for the loss of his pig, Darius for the loss of his wife and for his actions. Rob’s humility, and his willingness to show himself as weak and vulnerable, grants him an opportunity to begin to accept the impermanence not just of his own prestige, but also of his relationship with his pig. The recognition will give him—and Darius, and Amir—the ability to begin to heal, their respective vulnerabilities enriching their relationships with each other and themselves.
"Pig" is now playing in theaters and available today to rent or own on digital platforms.