It can be uncomfortable getting close to someone. Some people don’t want others to learn anything about them, and our relationship becomes one of a mutually recognised, sturdy distance. Their emotional barriers and boundaries can be so established, so fortified, that it defines them. We become used to their flat expressions and resistance to intimacy, so that when they start to open up, it seems like a betrayal of the person we’ve come to know. Distance can be comfortable.
Every open person worries they’re an oversharer, and I’m no exception. My life is full of people, however, who are much more reserved, and are less comfortable with openness, maybe because they’re anxious that they’re expecting to be vulnerable in kind. Whenever our misaligned boundaries are highlighted, I ask something I shouldn’t have or admit something they didn’t want to hear, an acute awareness appears, a piercing discomfort at our shared acknowledgement that one of us dearly wants the distance between us to remain intact.
In Pig, we get to see the painful transgression of such a distance. We watch as one haggard man, Rob (Nicolas Cage), painfully tries to connect in a way he’s rejected for fifteen years. In an effort to reclaim a lost truffle pig that serves as his only function and purpose in the forests of Oregon, he finds a lifeline in his salesman Amir (Alex Wolff) as he re-enters civilization and finds his way through an underground community he once helped forge. He is a ghost in his own castle.
Rob has forgotten how to talk, and doesn’t care to remember. When he starts venturing out of the forest to obtain information about his pig, his voice catches. He knows his beardy, lumbering physical form clad in filthy clothes is intimidating, and yet there still lies an insecurity behind his wild eyes, an unsureness about his ability to communicate. Amir props him up as he staggers back into the world, and often stands witness to the shocked, bitter, and awed reactions Rob inspires upon reappearing in Portland.
With Rob so intent on revealing nothing about himself, what we initially learn is gleaned from the faces of those who once knew him. Relationships we have no history of come to us in hints and glances, and Rob deflects all scrutiny from his confounded companion. Often, Amir will use Rob’s name to grant them entry into a secure location, despite having little understanding of the impact of the word he carries like a password.
Inconsistency has always defined Nicolas Cage’s career, with just as many hits as misses. But unlike Mandy’s single-minded journey fuelled by insanity and revenge, Pig’s strength lies in the quiet moments. The scenes where he’s on his own are rarely revealing: we learn most about him through his interactions with others, even when he fails to successfully articulate his thoughts.
When Amir opens up about the best meal his parents ever had before his mother’s suicide, Rob tells him a prediction of a natural disaster that will wipe out life in the city. It’s unclear whether he thinks this helps, or if helping was even his intention. But it definitely feels like authentic, honest Rob, a man who thinks that discussing death at the hands of an uncaring, overwhelming force of nature will bring him closer to others. It’s a poignant moment, one that illustrates something about a fractured man resistant to letting any light shine on his life.
Rob’s wife is dead. It’s not the most inventive backstory, but while it takes a while for it to be revealed, it’s not treated like some secretive twist. The trauma of Rob’s bereavement was visible all along, and once it’s revealed to Amir, we join him in looking back at the interactions they’ve had this far. Things start to coalesce, a clarity forms that was once missing. Rob lacks the ability to articulate his grief because, for over a decade, he’s burrowed himself into the earth, destroyed the parts that depended on other people and let himself float, bloated and irreparably damaged, in a vast, unreachable ocean.
And then, of course, there’s the pig.
It’s been said elsewhere, sometimes reductively, but the titular pig isn’t the most important part of the narrative. At a certain point, the nature of Rob’s dependency on the animal for his business is called into question, and the dramatic thrust of the story threatens to be undercut. If the pig isn’t absolutely necessary for Rob living his life, what was the point of his Hearts of Darkness-esque voyage into a metropolitan underbelly to get it back?
Rob admits to Amir, in a moment of hopeless resignation, that he needs his pig because he loves her. On paper, this much seems obvious. The surprise is not that Rob loves the pig, but that after his loss and the way he’s cut himself off from the world, he is capable of articulating that love at all. But Rob’s love is that of a survivalist, an acknowledgement that humans cannot live without some form of social companionship, so he places all his remnant affection on a creature who can’t hurt him the way people have. The pig is the only individual Rob allows himself to love, because the alternative, opening yourself to people, and therefore to the pain of human relationships, is unimaginable.
But Rob has chosen a broken way to live. He’s close to his pig, but he’s only close to his pig, so when she’s threatened to be taken away from him, he’s left spiralling in utter devastation. As the journey to restore his status quo progresses, he has to confront what he’s avoided all these years, that a network of empathy and connection is how we overcome loss.
Along the road, he allows Amir bit by bit into his turbulent interior world, and returns to sites of anxiety to ask for that which he has denied himself for fifteen years – help. He ends the film more vulnerable than he began it, and eventually doesn’t need the pig like he originally did. By wearing down his policy of rigid distance, he’s found himself capable of confronting the pain that has consumed him. What he’s afraid of ultimately heals him.
Everyone has a prerogative to be as private as they want, but as soon as loss enters the picture, it makes our desire for closeness with those around us feel more urgent. Those in my life who are deliberate with what they reveal to me about themselves, who have concealed their deeper feelings and opted for a relationship of basic, archetypal dynamics, largely don’t allow any intimacy to happen between us. But the few moments those boundaries were transgressed, where I got a glimpse of a complicated, brilliant, and real person, felt exhilarating, but they were exceptions to a rule of stifling distance.
Some of those people are dead now. I don’t want them all to go without finding out how they lived.