Nicolas Cage Hasn’t Lost His Edge

The actor may have retreated from the mainstream, but his latest film is a reminder that he’s always been a magnetic screen presence.

Nicolas Cage in "Pig"
Courtesy of Neon

On the basis of its advertising, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the indie film Pig is nothing more than the latest over-the-top entry in Nicolas Cage’s bewildering Hollywood career. He’s developed from promising young talent to Oscar winner to action star to, well, living meme. In this latest work, he’s a shambling, shaggy-haired farmer whose truffle pig is abducted; the trailer makes him out to be some Old MacDonald John Wick, a hirsute avatar of vengeance bursting in on the criminal underworld and grumbling, “Where’s my pig?”

Cage’s prodigious talent as an actor has never been in doubt. From his electrifying early appearances in Moonstruck and Raising Arizona to his eventual branding as a family-friendly movie star in Disney franchises such as National Treasure, he’s always been a magnetic screen presence capable of the most distinct and surprising choices. But in the past 10 years, he has retreated from the mainstream and clogged his filmography with phoned-in cameos in blandly titled direct-to-video action movies. Pig’s promotion leans into his current reputation as an actor unafraid to scream his lines and somehow emerge with his dignity (mostly) intact—and, in doing so, undersells his actual performance. In Pig, Cage is the mournful center of a clever story about how commercialism rots the purity of artistic expression. It’s some of his best, most nuanced work in years.

Cage plays Rob, a hermit in the Oregon woods who quietly hunts for mushrooms with his trusty pig, named Pig. He was once a celebrated chef in Portland, though what motivated his now-reclusive existence is unclear. In an interview with Variety, Cage acknowledged the real-life parallels with his character. He too has become something of a recluse, and hasn’t been in a live-action movie that made more than $100 million at the U.S. box office since 2007’s National Treasure: Book of Secrets. “I do feel that I’ve gone into my own wilderness and that I’ve left the small town that is Hollywood,” Cage said. “I don’t know if I’d want to go back. I don’t know if I’d want to go and make another Disney movie. It would be terrifying. [Modern Hollywood is] a whole different climate.”

The actor’s financial struggles have been widely reported on, and surely motivated the forgettable paycheck work he’s been taking for the past decade. Still, he has some insight about the current state of big-budget filmmaking. Cage’s first major-league action blockbuster, The Rock, derived its joyousness in part from what an unpredictable choice he was as a marquee idol. Across his body of work, including similar hits, such as Face/Off, Con Air, and Ghost Rider, the thrill of a Cage performance comes from his willingness to challenge the traditional stoicism of the A-list action star.

Movie stardom feels much more hermetic now than it did when he was starting out. Plenty of exciting young actors are emerging in contemporary Hollywood, but many of them are thrust into franchise films in which the brand functions as the real star, squelching individual artistry. One wonders whether there’s space for the Nicolas Cages of the future to give the kind of weird and wild performances he did—and whether he’ll ever pop back up in a movie with a bigger budget. For now, he seems mostly settled in the world of strange indies, though he has contributed voice work to tentpoles such as The Croods and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

The mysteriousness of Cage’s withdrawal from mainstream culture only fuels Pig’s allure, as does the unusually subdued actor who shows up on-screen. His performance is the furthest thing from the high-energy, mad-eyed tour de force he’s served up in films both terrific (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) and risible (The Wicker Man). Rob is taciturn, but his passion for food runs deep; Cage plays him as a dormant volcano, understanding that the viewer might expect him to eventually explode. The fact that he never does makes Pig all the more compelling.

As Rob invades various Portland houses of haute cuisine in search of his pig, the film turns into something of a food travelogue. The first-time writer-director Michael Sarnoski (who co-wrote the story with Vanessa Block) beautifully shoots each sumptuous meal that Rob and his nervy ally, Amir (Alex Wolff), take in as they search for Pig’s kidnapper. Hints of satire emerge as the unkempt Rob monologues about persimmon tannins to bewildered chefs, but Cage, as he so often does, strikes the balance between self-awareness and sincerity. Pig is a blend of absurd cooking melodrama, jokey revenge thriller, and allegory, and Cage is the connective tissue holding all those ridiculous elements together. He may have abandoned the brightest spotlight, but he’s lost none of his edge.