On grief, healing and wholeness

Mark Zarwi watches 'Pig', directed by Michael Sarnoski.

It is a sensitive time to explore the themes of grief, healing and wholeness that are at the centre of Michael Sarnoski’s bittersweet Pig. It stars the excellent Nicolas Cage as Rob Feld, a once-prominent chef who now lives a solitary life in the woods, with only the company of his truffle pig, and the occasional business visit from Amir, a slick and showy ingredients trader.

Following the violent and dramatic theft of his pig, Rob returns to the world he left behind – downtown Portland – to trace its kidnappers. As we quickly learn, it was loss that pulled Rob into the abyss and it is loss that pulls him out again. Fittingly, while the film starts at a rolling boil, it slows to a simmer to deliver its timely message.

As Rob searches for evidence in the city’s high-end restaurant scene, pretence lurks at every turn – from the obnoxiously ‘de-constructed’ food offerings to Amir’s frantic attempts to become clued-up on classical music to fit in. Unexpectedly, Rob appears unmoved by vengeance, responding to his surroundings with a mixture of indifference, fatalism and disdain. Hollowed out by grief, he just wants his pig back.

In contrast to the highly-polished backdrops, Rob cuts a haunted, wild-eyed figure who raises difficult questions. In one powerful scene, the shot remains fixed on a head chef who struggles, excruciatingly, to justify his decision to abandon his dream of owning a pub in favour of opening an upmarket restaurant.

The power and raw emotion of Rob is reflected in both his relentlessness and the underlying sense that he could erupt at any moment (a la John Wick). Pig’s message, however, hits home in its subtler moments. Rob’s earthy sincerity – displayed most vividly in the reverential way in which he prepares food – is one of the keys to his progress, and the progress of others also struggling with loss and damaged relationships.

The film is a poignant exploration of loss, grief and what it means to be wholly human. Carl Jung’s concept of ‘shadow’ – the idea that there are primal parts of us that remain outside of our conscious awareness and public persona – is evident in the contrast between Rob and civilised society. Jung stressed the importance of not ignoring our shadow aspects if we are to be psychologically whole, and Pig nods to these risks in its depiction of the brutish places that lie just beyond the urbane exterior.

Like Rob, grief and loss often arrive unannounced, unwashed and unwelcomed. Too often, these topics are dismissed as taboo or discussed superficially in fear of saying the wrong thing; indeed, these themes are often too sombre for mainstream cinema. Pig calls us to probe beneath the surface and to do better than talking around the issues. As Rob reminds us: ‘we don’t get a lot of things to really care about’.

Pig forgoes the prospect of fireworks and vengeance in favour of a measured unpacking of broken pasts and uncertain futures. The film is lurching in parts and measured in others, but always unpredictable and, crucially, different for each of its characters: a fitting reflection of the challenging path out of grief and towards knowing the parts of ourselves that dwell out in the woods.

- Reviewed by Mark Zarwi, a psychology student at BPP University. [email protected]

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