There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.

Pig is a bonkers Nicolas Cage movie, but it’s not bonkers in the way you expect a Nicolas Cage movie to be. For nearly four decades, the actor has made an art form out of conscious overacting, peppering his performances with bug-eyed stares, gyrating hips, and lots and lots of unnecessary shouting. He has done it in Oscar-winners (Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas), blockbusters (The Rock, Face/Off), and gnarly little genre flicks (Mandy, Color Out of Space), proving that his grand, expressionist acting style isn’t just a choice to suit a particular role. It’s more like an artistic mission.

So at first glance, his role in Pig as Robin, a reclusive truffle hunter, seems like an about-face. Robin is a fundamentally quiet man who lives in a shack in the Oregonian wilderness with only his beloved pig for companionship. He dresses in dirty rags and covers his face with a substantial beard. With his eyes fixed mostly on the earth, the distinctive actor doesn’t stand out, but rather recedes into the woods. He barely speaks, let alone shouts. Instead of forcing himself upon the audience, Cage glows with quiet intensity and commands our attention all the same.

Even when Robin leaves the woods, as he must, Cage never wavers from his characterization. His pig is stolen in the middle of the night, and Robin suspects a player in the uber-competitive fine-dining world in nearby Portland is to blame. He teams up with Amir (Alex Wolff), a local truffle distributor who can open doors for him, to investigate the theft. Despite the John Wick-style set-up, first-time director Michael Sarnoski chooses a more rewarding path than revenge. He shoots Pig like a gangster movie, with long takes that threaten to explode into carnage. There are numerous allusions to The Godfather, most notably in the darkly lit, yellow-tinged scene set in the private office of a big baddie, but Sarnoski proves more interested in the mood of violence than its simple catharses. The little bloodshed that does occur in Pig takes place off-camera or out of focus in the background. 

Instead, Pig weaves a richly entertaining treatise about the role food plays in our lives. Robin makes his way through the Portland foodie world as a sort of esculent avenger, correcting the wrongs of culinary culture while looking for his friend. Thematically, it would sit neatly at a table with Big Night and Ratatouille, films that reclaim eating as an emotionally transcendent experience from those who co-opt it as a status symbol or commercial enterprise. Sometimes it’s a little too cute; the film is divided into four chapters named after meals consumed within, such as “Mom’s French Toast and Deconstructed Scallops,” but its earnestness about food is vital to its success. Pig is pro-foodie, but it wrestles admirably with that identity, pitting its rage toward culinary evildoers against an underlying philosophy that suggest food, at its best, is built squarely on love.

It’s an exciting debut for Sarnoski, whose blend of vision and proficiency creates a willingness in the viewer to follow him into bold, new territories. Several days after watching Pig, my mind drifts back to a thrilling scene in which Robin, investigating a trendy new restaurant by having a meal there, receives a visit at his table from the cocky chef. Instead of offering his compliments, Robin hits him with some hard truths about his cooking, turning the chef into a stuttering mess with his precision. It’s a tense, harrowing, and hilarious sequence, with the kind of slow-building tension that would please Quentin Tarantino, although he would surely end it with another bloody shootout. Pig works with few new ingredients, but it achieves a flavor all its own.

Pig opens in theaters on Friday, July 16.