Cage’s newest film, “Pig,” is a drama about a misanthropic former chef named Robin who lives in the woods of the Pacific Northwest with no friends, phone or shower, and who — after his prized truffle pig is stolen — leaves his run-down shack for the upscale foodie subculture of downtown Portland in which he was once a superstar. He has one mission: to retrieve the missing animal. The trailer for the film, in which Cage appears bearded, bloodied and with long, bedraggled hair, features his character whispering, with the actor’s characteristic, almost malevolent intensity, “Who has my pig?” (You can practically smell Robin’s stink through the computer screen.) Could this film go the way of so much of Cage’s recent work — that is, over the top and back around again, with a tour de force of manic energy?
Well, sure, it could go that way, but it doesn’t. In this strangely moving little film — the feature debut of director Michael Sarnoski, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Vanessa Block — Cage reins in the tendency to overdo things, delivering a soulful performance of unexpected depth and quiet beauty. It’s his best work since the underrated “Joe,” from 2014, and a reminder what the actor is capable of.
Robin’s quest peels away, like an onion, the layers of a backstory involving painful loss, and a relationship with the pig that transcends the animal’s skills. Let’s call it what Robin calls it: love. Sarnoski is aided in telling this story — which also involves other characters who have experienced loss — by a strong cast. Alex Wolff plays the truffle dealer Amir, who arrives in a yellow Camaro once a week to pick up the bounty that Robin and his pig have unearthed; and Adam Arkin is Amir’s business rival, with a connection to Amir that only reveals itself late in the film.
There are some elements of a thriller here. The trail pursued by Robin leads him to the literal underbelly of the Portland restaurant scene, including a subterranean fight club where the protagonist picks up the scent of his quarry. But the whodunit is never really the point.
“Pig’s” stock in trade is a kind of visual and narrative poetry, and Sarnoski and Block ply it with the skill and light touch of master chefs. So much of the film revolves around food and the senses — leveraging the allusive power underlying the idea of what it means to “feed” someone — that the film’s three acts are titled after meals: “Rustic Mushroom Tart,” “Mom’s French toast and Deconstructed Scallops” and “A Bird, a Bottle and a Salted Baguette.”
There’s a paradox at the heart of “Pig” that, rather than weakening the story, lends it strength. It has everything to do with Cage himself, who has always been at the top of his game when he plays against the volcanic emotions inside his character, rather than indulging them. That paradox is embodied in the film’s closing song, which plays over an almost beatific image of Robin: Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” delivered in a gently folksy, almost fragile rendition by Cassandra Violet. Like the character at the heart of “Pig” — who is not, as it turns out, a pig at all, even metaphorically — it is smoldering and gentle.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language and some violence. 92 minutes.