The fall festival, film and awards season is upon us. As you are reading this, many prestigious film festivals are gearing up for world premieres of some of the biggest releases yet to be seen in 2021. With this, we know, based on the history of the season, that after Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York, and many more festivals have their say, the awards season will be set with a selective amount of films, and with them dozens of performances to pick and choose from to hand out those elusive gold statues to. But still, even as the ides of September are calling, there is one question that lingers from the first half of the year, and that is, are we sure we haven’t already seen the Best Actor performance of the year? This question must be asked because of the existence of Nicolas Cage’s performances in NEON’s Pig, which is not only the performance of 2021 so far, but as time passes, it continues to solidify for me as the best performance in the Oscar winner’s career.
In Pig, Cage plays Robin “Rob” Feld, a recluse living in a shack outside of Portland with his trusty companion, a truffle pig. Rob is clearly an admirer of food, as well as an eye for finding beautiful truffles to sell to Amir (Alex Wolff), in exchange for groceries and cash. One night, as he is sleeping, Rob’s pig is abducted, with the squeals waking him up. As he gets up, the intruders knock him out, leaving him a bloody mess on the phone. The next morning, Rob wakes up and starts his search, alongside Amir, for his four-legged compadre.
The premise seems ripped straight out of an action movie like John Wick that Cage himself would star in; ultra-violent and completely over the top. Instead, Pig is a grounded meditation of an artist trying to gain back the love they lost in the craft they are strongly passionate about, and in doing so, gain back a piece of themselves that has been missing for such a long time. It’s a deeply relatable performance from Cage, as most of us struggle with the loss of something, either a talent, our jobs, a loss of a loved one, even our own internal and external emotions. And just like Rob, there is a darker, destructive way of handling these problems that will feel good at the moment of execution, but might not feel cathartic enough to fully reach closure. Instead of using his fists and anger, we see Cage’s Rob have simple, rational conversations with everyone he sits down with, knowing that the goal is to get the pig back, but it’s also to close a chapter of his life that he has been hiding from for such a long time. By the end, his closure is our closure, and we know he will be okay now in the long run.
Beyond just the character of Rob that he created with first time director Michael Sarnoski, this performance from Cage can also be seen as a symbolic, meta commentary on the current state of the actor’s career and where he sees himself going forward in the current cinema landscape. This excerpt below from our review last month explains the “meta elements” attached to this glorious performance from Cage.
“In many ways, the pig is a symbol of Cage’s material hold on the career he has built over the years. Like a pig, his career might not be elegant to traditional standards, but it is layered and deeply personal to the actor and when studios or audiences have tried to take it away over time, he fights back with outstanding work and vulnerable performances to keep them at bay.”
This isn’t your garden variety performance from Cage. To anyone that sees the film, you can just see how personal this is for him. Cage is putting his heart and soul on the line, like many actors of his generation we celebrate consistently year in and year out. Cage himself has said there are a lot of similarities between him and Rob and he wanted to remind viewers that he can give a realistic performance. This is a tender, calculated Cage, an actor who has seen and done just about every kind of performance a person can do, and brings it all together here, erases the camp, and serves a bloody, broken, delicious showcase that lingers well beyond the briskly efficient 92-minute runtime. It’s an astonishing achievement.
The Academy loves a great comeback story and Cage is that this awards season. They are always rewarding actors who haven’t been nominated in some time. Think how long it took between nominations for someone like Sylvester Stallone. They also are clearly okay with awarding second or third wins later in an actor’s career, just look at Anthony Hopkins in The Father from last season. It’s time for the Academy to give a generational talent like Cage his first Oscar nomination in nearly 20 years, since his brilliant dual roles in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation from 2002. Cage, just like Hopkins, delivered something so extraordinary that it should be hard for anyone to pass it up when it praising the 2021 year in film. It’s also no small feat that Pig stands as Cage’s highest rated movie of his 40+ year career.
So go to all the film festivals you need to, see every premiere under the sun, watch as many award screeners as you can, but chances are, you won’t see the same committed, thought-provoking elegance from the majority of Best Actor contenders as you will with this singular piece of art from Nicolas Cage. The Oscars are supposed to be about celebrating the best of the best within a given year, and should they nominate Cage for Pig, they will have done just that.