Watch for the moment in Michael Sarnoski’s film Pig when Robin — a formidable, Jesus-bearded truffle hunter living as a recluse in the woods outside of Portland, Oregon — walks through a fancy downtown restaurant like Obi-Wan Kenobi making his way to the heart of the Death Star, reluctantly leading his anxious young driver Amir to the threshold of a secret underworld. As they descend into a forgotten world of old Portland history, Amir’s panic increases; he doesn’t know where they’re going or why. When he flicks on his iPhone flashlight to light their way, Robin, brusque as always, snaps at him: “Turn it off. Your eyes will adjust.

Those are fleeting comments, as incidental as anything this wounded old man says along the journey. But those words, in retrospect, sound like a larger lesson — a summation of everything Robin means to teach this young, materialistic, and ambitious entrepreneur.

The trailer for Pig led me (and probably everyone who saw it) to anticipate a John Wick-style revenge thriller. It captured our attention and inspired our skepticism with glimpses of a bloodied and furious Nicolas Cage emerging from the woods on a seemingly violent campaign to regain something precious that had been taken from him. “I want my pig back,” he snarled, and that’s all we had to go on. I braced myself for a video-game sequence of scenes in which a wrathful hero slashes and bashes his way toward a showdown with a Final Boss of some kind, leaving broken bodies in his wake.

But the surprise awaiting viewers is that Pig is something altogether different.

Nicolas Cage plays Robin, a woods-dwelling truffle hunter whose only friend is his pig.

And what it is is best categorized in a genre that’s much less popular but much more rewarding: Let’s call it “Mentor and Student” or “Master and Apprentice.”

Watching it, I found myself trying to remember a dynamic that might serve as a good comparison — perhaps Sean slowly saving Will from his paralyzing insecurity and trauma in Good Will Hunting, or — better — Olivier disciplining himself into the role of surrogate father for a troubled juvenile delinquent in Le Fils (The Son), because that film is more focused on the teacher than the student.

But what’s even more interesting about the central relationship in Pig is that young Amir (played by Alex Wolff as an arrogant poser slowly coming apart like Tom Cruise in Rain Man) thinks he’s the guide, at first, lecturing Robin as he brings him out of the woods and into the “jungle” of the contemporary Portland restaurant scene. But Amir will quickly learn that the world he thinks he knows is built on lies, and it’s actually Robin who knows how the world really works.

“I’d like to speak to the chef.” Robin tosses a philosophical grenade into a fancy Portland restaurant.

Fair warning: The movie does take violent turns. In a surreal, David Lynchian sequence early in the film, Robin gets beaten to a pulp, and he hauls his bloodied carcass around after that like a testimony of abuse and losses, the camera often revering him as if he were Jesus Himself. (I’m not the only reviewer reminded of The Passion of Joan of Arc.)

But don’t let that give you the wrong impression. Pig is, above all, a meditative film that prioritizes its short but weighty conversations between a begrudging guru and an obstinate idiot. Robin is a sort of sensei or Jedi Master from an ancient world when Portland chefs were like samurai or Jedi with a code of honor and excellence. Amir is like a begrudging Padawan learner who begins as a salesman for pretentious artifice and scams, one who ends up humbled by his first encounters with profound artistry. (I can hear Kenobi’s voice haunting the film: “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”)

Amir (Alex Wolff) is about to have his fiercely competitive impulses on the Portland restaurant scene dismantled by goodness and truth.

I’m seeing the title now as carrying a double meaning: It can be read literally, as a reference the titular MacGuffin, or it can be read as a world-weary condemnation of the villain — the kind of person who, corrupted by a lust for power, abandons conscience and conviction. The movie is, ultimately, about the value of Authenticity, and how the costly path we must navigate to attain it is a lonely road that leads us out of the mainstream, with its money and glamour and power games, and into the wilderness where the remaining goodness of the world might still be glimpsed and savored in quiet, fleeting moments.

The less you know about the plot going in, the better. If you can stop here and go see it on my whole-hearted recommendation… do so! Having said that, I will minimize spoilers in what I say going forward.

Let frame the story with more clarity:

The film opens with a short series of moments in which we observe Robin’s routine of truffle hunting with his charming, fuzzy pig. As I’ve just seen the documentary The Truffle Hunters, I was intrigued to see the film propose that this strange harvesting technique is the same just outside of my hometown of Portland, Oregon as it is in the forests of Northern Italy.

Cutest MacGuffin of 2021?

Amir, the son of a “king” of the Portland gourmet dining scene, wants to make his own way and prove to his power-drunk, egomaniacal father (Adam Arkin in a chilling turn) that he’s worthy of respect and love. He pep-talks himself in the mirror: “I’m the king of the jungle. I’m the king of the jungle!”

But Robin’s going to help Amir’s eyes “adjust” to just how dark this world really is, how deep the delusion of hipsterism really goes, and how painful it can be to carry the knowledge of what is possible, what is beautiful, what is true. He will lead Amir on a tour of his own neighborhood and show him how to really know the nature of the place for the first time.

As the voice of Wisdom — and, thus, the bearer of unfathomable grief — Nicolas Cage delivers the most nuanced and soulful performance we’ve seen from him in more than a decade. Cage, whose performances in the ’80s earned him lasting respect, has since then seemed inclined to take any role within reach, even as he has seemed less and less interested in doing anything interesting with those roles. Occasionally, something will bring out the memorably manic edge (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Mandy) that characterized his 1987 breakout roles: Ronny in Moonstruck, H.I. in Raising Arizona. But I haven’t seen him invest in a distinctive character with meaningful and memorable results since the 2002–2003 sequence of Matchstick Men and Adaptation. In Pig, he gives Robin a gravity, a physicality, and a measured way of speaking that conveys discernment born of suffering and experience. In that sense, this is like David Thewlis’s titanic performance in Mike Leigh’s Naked if that main character had been well-intentioned instead of nihilistic and self-destructive. I hope Pig represents a turning point in his career, the beginning of a new era of textured, nuanced, subtle performances that I believe he is fully capable of contributing.

In Pig, Cage is better than he’s been in many, many years.

Much of the film’s sadness comes from moments when Robin asks for something in civilization that the locals know nothing about — for example, there’s a particularly poignant moment when he visits a property he once knew and asks a child about a particular persimmon tree he remembers and cherishes. The child blinks and asks, in complete innocence, “What’s a persimmon?” A word has been lost, and, along with it, a city’s access to a specific wonder, a particular treasure.

That is one of the things we might say that Pig is “about”: When we cease to care about the world we’re living in and care only about imposing our ideals upon it, thinking we know what is best, and desiring only our own benefit, we destroy what is already there — a wonderland that might have humbled, enchanted, and blessed us.

So, no — Pig doesn’t leave me with that sense of exhaustion I feel after hyper-violent movies. Nor does it give my spirit that bitter aftertaste so typical of revenge epics.

“Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere!” — This isn’t a line from Pig. But it might as well be.

Instead, I find myself thinking of Babette’s Feast, in which a worldly general, his soul hollowed out by vanity and violence, suddenly recalls a memorable meal served by a world class artist. I think of that unforgettable moment at the climax of Pixar’s Ratatouille, when a single forkful of food becomes the key that unlocks the secrets to redemption. I think of The Son, in which a broken man takes up a burdensome cross, determining to teach a young man whom he has every reason to despise.

Still, I can’t quite put into words why I find this wild — and, yes, in some ways absurd — motion picture so moving. I found myself, quite unexpectedly, grieving near the conclusion. It’s as if Robin has given me a character through which I can acknowledge deeply personal losses, sufferings I find hard to describe. With each passing year, I see it becoming harder and harder for those who seek beauty and truth in the world to find it. The demons of commerce and consumerism make it particularly difficult for artists to do good work, and even harder for audiences to find it. At the movies, it seems that the cliche, the derivative, the counterfeit, and the corrupt continue to trump occasions of poetry. This film is, I am grateful to discover, about that very thing. And at the same time, it gives me hope, because it is an exception to that trend: It’s a film of startling imagination, honesty, and grace… one that has reached the big screen in a time when such occasions are rare.

I’m reminded of the moment when Samwise, in the film version of The Two Towers, reminds his despairing friend, “There is some good in this world … and it’s worth fighting for.” And yet here, even more meaningfully, the enemy of all that is good is fought not with swords and violence, but with generosity, beauty, and grace.