NOTE: Spoilers abound.
I’m not a very adventurous eater. My palate has long been entombed somewhere between “peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crust cut off” and “this time I’ll go big and get the mildly spicy version of the butter chicken,” since I was a teenager with only relatively significant strides outward since then. I also have a weird aversion to certain textures that makes a lot of dishes unpalatable out of the gate. What I’m saying is, I don’t think I “get” food in the way that some people do, don’t have a tongue or a head for complex flavors or textures.
High-end cooking, then, is only really meaningful to me for its metaphorical value. Film history is littered with examples of food as a central metaphor, where the act of tasting and eating itself is secondary to its meaning to characters. Food’s great for this because it’s inherently secondary in this context — you, the audience member, cannot taste or eat along with the character, so it’s only their emotional experience of the food that’s going to register. It’s a good way to think about plot elements in general, honestly. There’s an old line for which I cannot remember the attribution that a sex scene in a book or movie isn’t any good if it’s about sex; it only has value as characterization, representation of intimacy or vulnerability (or, ironically, isolation or anger or fear or sorrow).
Pig, 2021’s Nicholas Cage meme factory, understands this so profoundly that you never make the mistake of thinking the movie might be about anything other than the metaphor. Thank goodness for me, then, who has no interest whatsoever in eating a truffle dish but can jive quite well with a story of grief and transience.
Transience is the key here. Pig is a film obsessed with finding new ways to illustrate and contrast the ways in which the most important things are inherently temporary. It has a funny runner where Alex Wolff’s character is listening to not just classical music in his car, but classical music with an obnoxious voiceover about the forever-legacy of that music, why it endured for hundreds of years past and will endure for hundreds of years hence. The first time he hears this, Rob (Cage’s character) raises his eyebrow for a second and then turns it off. This is a movie that could not have less patience for the age-old search for immortality through legacy.
The opening shot and one of the final shots are of the flowing water near Rob’s cabin; implacable, peaceful but constant. At the same time, the persimmon tree in Rob’s old backyard is gone, died or removed; his old restaurant no longer resembles itself. Cage has at least two outstanding monologues, and they’re all about the inevitability of loss and regret: Portland will be swallowed by the ocean, and a person will sacrifice their soul for nothing, to seek validation from people who do not know him and will forget his face the instant he leaves.
Wolff’s character, Amir, works really nicely as a contrast and case study, along with his father. His car, his suits, his whole demeanor is about trying to build to and capture a reputation he does not realize is always built on a foundation of sand; he wants to be “steady” like his father, who is trapped and rotting from grief. When the events of the film strip him of his perception that there are any stable handholds on his climb or at the supposed top, he slumps in his car bereft; that incessant classical music track can’t even get to the actual music before the pretense of the narrator drives Amir to shut it out.
One striking detail that really hits you in this sea of Ozymandian decay is what Rob tells Amir’s father after the climactic dinner scene: “I remember every meal I ever cooked. I remember every person I ever served.” Some form of this line is in the trailers, I believe, because I remember hearing it in those as a weird take on Liam Neeson’s classic “I have a certain set of skills” line from Taken. But it’s not, at all — what he’s saying in that moment is that he recognizes his meals not just as plates of food but as memories, each of which is worth cherishing and understanding.
Later, when Amir and Rob are eating brownies at a late-night diner (finally, a scene about eating where I just want to join in the eating!), Rob confesses to thinking that if he hadn’t searched, he wouldn’t know that his beloved pig had died. That’s not quite what he says, though: “In my head, she’d still be alive,” he says. Amir counters, “but she wouldn’t be.”
“No, she wouldn’t,” Rob says, but he doesn’t sound quite convinced.
This is what the film centers on, finally and most emphatically: Everything dies, but nothing is dead if we remember it. Not a “cutting-edge” chef’s lost dreams of opening a pub, not a persimmon tree and its ripest fruit, not a friend or a loved one, as long as we have some memory of it to share and to keep. That we ourselves die, too, only matters on the cosmic scale, the scale of time at which Portland will wash away again and again, and be rebuilt again and again on the shoreline. Now — the “now” of our consciousness — has the power to preserve the crucial things, to let them echo for another moment, and that power means more than any reputation or empire of sand.
The things that matter stick to us and stick to the world. It’s why Rob remembers his meals and the people who eat them — because those are moments of emotional connection. He’s seeing through that metaphor I talked about above, how food and the act of preparing and serving is really just a vital form of human connection. For as much loss as he has suffered, he holds on to this weight of memory.
That’s why, despite what you might think or expect given the literal plot events, there’s no feint towards suicide or larger desperation in the final scene. Yes, this is a movie about the tremendous burden of grief, but it’s also about the peace of knowing that your life, one blip in time, will carry with it all the things you love, for the whole forever of your consciousness.
(Speaking of the ending: It’s lovely how the tape Cage has of his wife’s voice isn’t of her giving him some final message a la Starlord’s mom in Guardians of the Galaxy, and that the titular pig wasn’t a gift from her, either, a la Wick. Instead the recording is just of a moment somewhere in the middle of a life.)
Let me also say, a little less philosophically, that this is a gorgeous film to look at, lovingly and intimately shot, pensive and quiet most of the time with bursts of violence and energy that jar even more for the contrast. There’s a hazy, dizzying quality to the initial shots of the city that give it a raw energy withheld from the peaceful languor of Rob’s cabin and neighboring woods. The shots involving food preparation tend to spend a lot of time looking at faces, rather than hands. Sometimes the camera pulls far away and stills, capturing a moment and its context all at once, and the effect is oddly stirring.
Violence is interesting in this movie, too: The only real extended sequence of it comes in the weird underground fight club for restaurant workers. I scratched my head a lot while watching that scene; it still feels like the most Wick-y, fantastical element in an otherwise surprisingly restrained narrative, but it fits for a few reasons. One is just that it’s really a place of emotional release and catharsis for people wrapped up in a meaningless race upwards and outwards; it very effectively establishes why a man of Rob’s philosophy had to leave this world eventually. Another is that it creates a means to further externalize the degree of Rob’s suffering, to force others to see and understand him in a way that Amir won’t allow with all his primping and mirror prep.
But ultimately, this isn’t a violent movie, and it’s not a movie about violence, either. I think the trailers do the movie an awful disservice in this way, centering anger and vengeance and the qualities of some other movie, one that might be good but isn’t at all what this film drives towards, which is acceptance and rumination within and alongside our experiences and memories of grief and love.