Both the poster and the trailer for Pig (2021; in theaters and for rent on Amazon and iTunes) prepare us to expect a revenge movie, a John Wick-style rejection of the system because of an assault on an animal, or, as one reviewer put it, “Taken but with a pig.” Nicholas Cage could easily play that sort of character: a man with simmering rage and loss that boils over into an unstoppable violence.
But Pig is not that movie and Cage’s character, Rob, is not John Wick. (The only real violence he commits is against Amir’s car.) Pig‘s subversion of revenge-movie tropes becomes the foundation for a “beguiling, confounding” film.
What would you expect to happen in a revenge movie? Someone who is already in a physically or emotionally difficult situation has something important taken from him, or someone close to her is attacked or killed. This person has either the ability or the will, or both, to pursue those who have caused the loss. The avenger travels through dark and dangerous places, fighting off people who do not want him to find out “the truth” about the attack. Or she has to overcome various challenges, gaining pieces of information one at a time about those whom she is pursuing. Eventually, of course, the person rights the wrongs, usually in violent and explosive ways, and we cheer him or her on.
Because we see the set-up for all of these events in Pig (including a fantastical fight club for food service workers!), but without the normal payoff, we never quite get the catharsis we are trained to expect. That makes the movie more difficult than we might want and unsatisfying in certain ways. But the initial difficulty and dissatisfaction allow for something far more interesting in the end. Because Pig defies our expectations, we are prevented from locating it firmly within any one genre or gaining a firm handle on what it is about. It is its own entity, and like any good work of art, it really should be experienced rather than explained. (In other words, you may want to watch it before reading on.)
There are, however, two intriguing ideas that seem to evade common notice. One is related to the inverted revenge story line. Rob does not, as we might expect, rampage through Portland, destroying anyone who gets in his way as he makes his way to rescue the pig. But it goes further than simply undermining common tropes. Rob has a sort of “active righteousness” in which he provokes violence against himself for the sake of his own purposes, without defending himself.
In this way, he could be seen as a sort of Christ figure, who “descends” from a version of an idealized paradise—incidentally, how would one go about acquiring such a cabin in the Pacific Northwest wilderness?—into the muck and grime of a city populated entirely by selfish and cynical humans, who want nothing to do with him. But he cannot be that, finally, because all his actions do not lead to “salvation” for the object of his mission.
On the other hand, Amir (Alex Wolff) may well have been saved, in a sense. It is his character that we feel has been shifted more profoundly than any other person in the movie. How could he go back to the blustering false confidence he projects at the beginning, or to his ambition, which now seems empty in light of the day or two he spends with Rob? (Time moves in the film, but indeterminately.)
I think, however, that a better lens is Paul’s in Romans 12: “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but give place to the Wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21).
Rob brings food to Edgar (Darius Pierce), though it (and he) is rejected. In the climax of the movie, he cooks, with Amir, a meal for Amir’s father Darius (Adam Arkin) (though I sort of expected him to burn down Darius’s house instead). He apparently gave his restaurant building to Helen (October Moore), who has turned it into a bakery. He does not retaliate against any of the people who have wronged him in various ways, even the people who actually assaulted him and took his pig. Admittedly, Rob’s actions are directed primarily toward the goal of getting the pig back, rather than aimed at the good of the individuals with whom he comes into contact. Even so, in Pig violence does not beget violence. The good that Rob does produces sorrow and perhaps even repentance, and he absorbs the violence directed against him, rather than returning it in kind.
But there is another, deeper thread that runs through the film. It concerns the nature of our existence in the world and our existence with one another. Darius and Edgar give us one version, and Rob gives us another. The most cynical (leading to the most evil) is Darius, who says to Rob, “You made the right choice, being out there in the woods. You had your moment, but there’s nothing here for you anymore. There’s really nothing here for most of us. You don’t keep a grip on it, that’s pretty much it.” This echoes, in part, what Edgar had told him earlier: “There was a time when your name meant something. But you have no value. You don’t exist anymore. You don’t exist.”
This is, in some ways at least, the opposite of the conversation that Rob has with Derek Finway (David Knell) at his restaurant. “They’re not real,” Rob says to him. “You get that, right? The critics aren’t real. The customers aren’t real. Because this isn’t real. You’re not real.” Finway has created a world of critics and consumers to whom he is beholden, but he himself is fading away in the midst of it. But Rob is not arguing that Finway shouldn’t care about people. Rob himself remembers Derek even though he only worked for him for two months. He tells Darius that he remembers every meal he ever cooked and every person whom he served. The question is whether Derek is cooking only for the critics and the customers, who don’t care about him—who don’t, Rob says, even know you, because you haven’t shown them—or whether he’s cooking from out of himself for them.
We could draw different conclusions from these conversations. From the perspective of Darius and Edgar, people don’t care about you as a person, only about what you can give them. When you can’t give people anything of value, you yourself have no value. Rob’s conversation with Finway starts where Darius’s and Edgar’s end, and it could lead us to construct a world-view from a cliché: no one else cares about you, so you have to care about yourself. Being true to who you are is the only route to happiness.
Is there anything more to life than that? Why, when so many people aim precisely at their own happiness, do so many despair of it? Isn’t this the perspective of most people: we just want to be happy and we just want our kids to be happy? Seems like a simple enough goal. Why, then, aren’t we happy? Why aren’t they? Maybe happiness is not something at which you can look directly. What if you cannot aim at happiness as an end and actually hit it?
Instead, Rob’s words could lead us to a different conclusion about where fulfillment comes from. Maybe you have to be certain about your own identity, about what secures you to something immovable, in order to be free to see clearly your service and those whom you serve. Does Rob have that security? His wife is gone, which seems to have precipitated his exit from the city, from his restaurant, from civilization. His pig is gone, which might, in a different world, have precipitated his further retreat, perhaps even his suicide. But it doesn’t. As he leaves to return to his cabin, he tells Amir, “See you Thursday?” He does not need the pig in order to find truffles. But he loved her. Even in his grief, there is freedom. Whatever it is that secures Rob (and it is opaque in the movie), it is not his cooking, his value to others, his wife, his pig, or his personal happiness. It cannot be any of those things, since it is not shaken when he loses all of them.
What is missing for many of us in a dark and cynical world is an unshakable security that binds us to something outside of ourselves and our actions. What is despair but an inability to see anything past the horizon of our own failures and losses? To stave off despair, then, we need to be secured to something beyond that horizon. For Christians, it is baptism that secures us to Christ, according to His word. Faith is not a pious wish, but that which trusts the one who has secured us to Himself in His own suffering, death and resurrection.
In a world where everyone seems to be constructing his or her own identity, understood as some sort of “truth” I “discover” about myself even though I am the author of it, Christians hold that our identity is something—or rather Someone—given to us, and therefore more true than anything we can recognize within or about ourselves.
This is the reason for the Lutheran insistence on God’s promise being extra nos, or outside of us. We are always changing and our circumstances are always changing. The value we can give to other people changes. We require something unchangeable on which to stand, so that when all our achievements, all our successes, and all our abilities are gone, our value is found in what is given to us, rather than what is given by us.
Pig is a surprise because it does not conform to our easy conclusions about this world and our place in it, nor does it give us the incomplete catharsis of revenge. It asks more of us, and therefore gives more.