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When I first heard the premise of Pig, I thought it sounded like John Wick with a pig instead of a dog. Given that Nicolas Cage is the star, that sort of wild descent into violent mayhem seemed doubly likely. Just like one should never judge a book by its cover, neither should one judge a movie by its synopsis. Pig is a lot more than it looks like on the surface. There's a little violence, but by and large, this is a poignant meditation on loss and grief, with Cage giving the kind of restrained performance we haven't seen from him in ages. Don't expect a crazy “Cage goes over-the-top” action picture, because that's not what this is.

The actor plays Rob, a truffle hunter who lives and works in the wildness of Oregon. When his beloved, and extremely talented, foraging pig is kidnapped, he has no choice but to return to Portland in an effort to retrieve her. Portland, though, is where his previous life played out. It's where he was a highly respected chef working in the very best of restaurants. It's also where he lost the other love of his life, his now-deceased wife. In other words, the place he intentionally escaped from.

Aiding him in the quest is Amir (Alex Wolff), the buyer who purchases truffles from him to supply to restaurants. Together, they make their way through the city's fanciest eateries, trying to find leads as to the pig-napper's identity. The fidgety Amir grows increasingly uncomfortable being part of the impromptu investigation. His father, Darius (Adam Arkin), is a kingpin of exotic foods who has his footprint all over the establishments Rob is targeting. Amir is already stepping on his dad's toes by making an entry into the business; now he's directly impacting the bottom line.

Part of Pig's structure calls for Rob to be laconic. He doesn't say a lot, yet when he does, it's important. He keeps his emotions in check, while still giving off the vibe of a powder keg about to blow. Much of the movie's suspense comes from how he wields his influence. When the questioning of one chef leads nowhere, Rob identifies himself, immediately causing the chef to turn into a gushing sycophant. That dynamic proves fascinating, as the character operates with pinpoint precision, saying and doing only what he knows will be most effective in getting what he needs at any given moment. Cage is outstanding in the role, using his eyes to convey the combination of rage and sorrow that infuses Rob. We know what he's feeling at every second, whether he's speaking or silent.

Why so much concern over a pig? It wouldn't be wrong to say the animal is symbolic. Yes, Rob cares about her. At the same time, she's the only thing he's got left. His wife is gone and he walked away from his career. The pig is what allows him to hide, to grieve in private. Without her, he wouldn't be able to hole up in the woods. He wouldn't be able to eke out a minor living finding truffles. A certain existential drama arises from that. Rob isn't just trying to save a pig, he's trying to save himself.

The story builds to a fascinating conclusion. If you expect Rob to exact a bloody revenge once he meets up with the pig thief, you'll be disappointed. What he actually does is much worse than a punch or a gunshot. He commits an act of devastating psychological violence that's positively chilling. Pig hits the core of its theme in this denouement, namely that causing another person to experience grief is the most inhumane thing you could do to them. Shaking off the film's ideas on that count is difficult.

Wolff and Arkin are excellent in their supporting roles, ably backing Cage up in his portrait of a deeply damaged man. Pig's pace is intermittently on the slow side. Injecting a bit more overt drama during the middle section would have helped on that count. Nevertheless, director/co-writer Michael Sarnoski has made a sensitive, insightful picture about the pain of losing someone or something. Best of all, we truly sense that Rob makes a semblance of progress through his adventure. He deserves it.

out of four

Pig is rated R for language and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.