By John H. Foote

(****) Limited release in theatres

Of the greatest actors to emerge since the 70s – Sean Penn, Denzel Washington, Eric Roberts, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon – the most consistently daring and risk-taking is Nicolas Cage. Over his many years on the screen, he has continued to take risks no other actor would, and love him or hate him, one cannot deny his courage as an actor. His problems with the IRS might have brought him to some terrible films, yet even in the worst, most horrific films, Cage manages to be enormously watchable.

But his greatest performances were his roles as a doomed alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas (1995), the twin screenwriters in Adaptation (2002) and the OCD conman in the criminally underrated Matchstick Men (2003). As Ben, the alcoholic drinking himself to death in Vegas, he won the Oscar for Best Actor, critics awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critic Circle, critics awards in Boston, Chicago and Washington, the Golden Globe as well as the newly created Screen Actors Guild. The performance given by Cage is among the most revered in the history of the cinema. However, in the years to follow, he drew sharp criticism from his peers for choosing blockbusters such as Con Air (1997) and Face Off (1997) in place of more awards-worthy work. Yet he did venture back into challenging roles quite often, remaining relevant as an actor.

While his courage as an actor is undeniable, his attempts are often over the top. But there is always truth in every performance he has ever given, even the strange, goofy work in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) for his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola.

It is often forgotten that Cage was born Nicolas Coppola and was part of that proud Coppola heritage. He claims to have changed his name to strike out on his own, despite being proud of his family and their many accomplishments.

His latest performance, Pig (2021), is among the most astonishing he has even given, vintage Cage, both bizarre and strange. Robin (Cage) was once a great chef, who after a trauma, dropped off the grid and out of society. He lives the existence of a hermit, alone with only a truffle pig for companionship. Their day consists of searching the forest for truffles, and then preparing lavish meals for just himself. His only contact with a human being is Amir (Alex Wolff), who shows up once a week to buy the truffles Robin has collected with his beloved pig. There is no question the relationship he has with his pig is akin to a man and a dog. He adores the pig, and the animal clearly loves him. When two men break into his place and after an altercation, take off with the pig in tow, Robin is heartbroken. His sadness quickly simmers into a rage.

He searches for the men, who were likely unaware of the deep connection between Robin and the animal. We learn the reason for his trauma, as he mourns the loss of a woman, though we never learn what happened to her. Does he fear the same sort of intolerable pain if he cannot find his pig? Absolutely.

With the help of Amir, the two men scour Portland looking for clues of the kidnappers. Robin is not a stranger to the culinary world, and he is reminded of how much he despises the pretentiousness of this elite circle of impertinent food critics and pompous chefs. There is one magical scene where he skewers another chef for his food, surgically dissecting him and his work, fatally wounding the man with each word. That he does this covered in his own blood, his face scabbed with the healing wounds of the attack that took his pig, is deeply strange, but entirely believable because Cage finds the truth in it.

In fact, there is not a moment in the film, as bizarre as it is, that rings false. He is brilliant throughout the film, creating a flawed, wounded man in Robin who cannot live another day without his precious four-legged friend. Robin is deeply impacted by the theft and knows that if he cannot find his friend, grief will once again wash over him, and this time he might not escape it (if he ever did).

This is an engrossing performance, the purity of the acting exceptional throughout the movie. If Cage is not among the five nominees for Best Actor at Academy Awards time, I will be stunned. He is nothing less than astonishing.

First time director Michael Sarnoski has the courage and good sense to aim his camera at Cage and let the actor go. How does one direct a performance like this? So many young directors make the mistake of thinking they must talk to their actors about every scene and moment. Actors are artists and, if left alone, will direct themselves in most films. Leave them alone. I suspect he realized this early on, which means we can expect great things from Sarnoski. Pig is the beginning. Again, watch for Cage come Oscar time. This is the finest performance I have seen since Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (2016). Mesmerizing.

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