The logline for writer-director Michael Sarnoski’s remarkable feature debut Pig suggests an arch, neo-grindhouse riff on John Wick (2014). Nicolas Cage portrays a grizzled, forest-dwelling truffle hunter who embarks on a monomaniacal odyssey into the Big City to recover his stolen pet pig. One can easily imagine Cage going all Mandy (2018) on the doomed swine-nappers, leaving a mound of corpses in his wake in his effort to rescue his beloved porcine companion. In truth, the superficial absurdity of the film’s premise – as well as the implied promise of a patented overcranked Cage performance – proves to be a stunning feat of misdirection. Pig is, in fact, one of the most unabashedly earnest narrative features of 2021. Indeed, it is practically the antithesis of the film that many viewers will be expecting. Instead of a roaring rampage of revenge, Sarnoski delivers a dense, meditative tale about how devilishly easy it is to lose sight of what truly matters during our brief time on Earth, allowing ambition and resentments to sidetrack us from the pursuit of true happiness. It is the Tokyo Story (1953) of pig movies.

Rob (Cage) leads a serene existence in a ramshackle cabin in the Oregon wilderness, where he and his nameless Pig amble among the trees in search of a special kind of buried treasure: the huge black truffles coveted by the gourmands in nearby Portland. Rob’s only contact with the outside world appears to be Amir (Alex Wolff), a young, high-end provisioner with an expensive wardrobe and a bright yellow Camaro. Every Thursday, Amir roars up to Rob’s remote dwelling and exchanges a small load of supplies for a cooler full of truffles. The taciturn Rob doesn’t care to cultivate a relationship with the high-strung, status-obsessed Amir, nor does the older man seem all that interested in financial compensation. He is content to roam the misty forest and make mushroom tarts that he shares with Pig, although his loving attentiveness to the preparation of dough and filling suggest a foodie’s soul is lurking behind his scraggly hermit bearing.

One fateful night, faceless intruders burst into Rob’s cabin and beat him into unconsciousness. When he awakens in a sticky pool of blood the next morning, the silence that greets Rob’s wheezing whistles confirms what he dreads: His attackers have abducted Pig. This is the point where some viewers will expect Pig to shift into bone-crunching action-thriller mode, as Rob mercilessly pursues the thieves with a very particular and heretofore hidden set of skills. It’s also the point where director Sarnoski deflates this expectation in brilliant fashion: Rob’s mothballed pickup truck only gets a few hundred yards down the road before it begins belching smoke and sputters to a stop, obliging him to walk to the nearest landline phone and call Amir for a ride. It’s a sign of the film’s subversive, low-key wit, but also an indication that Pig will traverse a twisting, unpredictable path, one that owes less to revenge pictures than it does to filmmakers as varied as Frank Capra, Robert Bresson, Peter Weir, and Béla Tarr. Unexpectedly, Pig is also a story about the sublime power of food, in the vein of sumptuous culinary odes like Tampopo (1985), Babette’s Feast (1987), and Waitress (2007). There’s also some Fight Club (1999) in there.

Although this might sound like an inherently incongruous medley of inspirations, one of the marvels of Sarnoski’s feature is the clarity of its vision. This is a lean, well-burnished film that moves at a deliberate pace, where every scene and shot feels vital to the establishment and maintenance of its sincere, somber tone. There are, to be sure, flashes of gruesome violence in the film, particularly in a surreal set-piece involving an underground bare-knuckle boxing club for Portland’s restaurant workers. However, the catharsis of this bloodletting is more akin to self-mortification than trial by combat. As Rob stands with his hands behind his back, putting up no resistance while a diminutive waiter beats him into bruised hamburger, the air vibrates with a history of sins that demand atonement.

Indeed, Rob’s journey – following a trail of clues from rural farmers markets to bustling restaurant kitchens to the doorsteps of Portland’s culinary movers-and-shakers, all with a flustered Amir in tow – is one in which the truffle hunter plays the part of both the penitent pilgrim and the radical prophet. Like a pacifistic monk, he uses a kind of philosophical jujutsu to redirect every obstacle in his path, turning strangers into allies and enemies into nonentities. As he lumbers along a jagged route that slices through the city’s gastronomic scene, it quickly becomes apparent that Rob used to be a man of great importance in this world. The mere mention of his name conjures the impossible, such as a last-minute lunch reservation at the city’s hottest dining spot. When his slouching, battered figure appears in a doorway, the response from others always seems to be a mixture of wonder and alarm. “I thought you were —,” stammers the head chef (David Knell) at a chic restaurant where Rob sniffs around for a lead. As Amir looks on in astonishment, Rob reduces the man to tears simply by quietly asking how he squares his trendy deconstructed cuisine with his long-ago dream of opening a traditional English pub.

This pivotal scene – as well as another disarmingly subdued Cage monologue, concerning the future obliteration of the Pacific Northwest by earthquake and tsunami – expresses the film’s slippery, life-is-short ethos in explicit terms. However, such moments are the exception rather than the rule. In general, Pig prefers to simmer rather than spark, permitting its emotional punch and thematic concerns to emerge from the words that go unspoken. Rob and Amir talk in circles around the latter man’s antagonistic relationship with his father, while Rob never even mentions his dead wife, whose vanished voice lingers on an old cassette tape that he cherishes but can’t bear to play. In a simple, affecting scene where Rob visits a former colleague to procure a baguette, Cage conveys decades of memories and regrets with a few lines of mundane, long-time-no-see dialogue.

Viewers who are anticipating a typically unhinged and idiosyncratic Cage performance will doubtlessly be nonplussed by the muted, measured approach he employs in Pig. Rob is closer to his (comparatively) dialed-back roles in Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Lord of War (2003), and The Weather Man (2005) than it is to his typical larger-than-life characters, but, truthfully, what Cage is doing is Pig is quite unlike any performance he has delivered before. While Rob still exudes the actor’s characteristic intensity, that inimitable, wild-eyed energy is swathed in the thick flannel of an old man’s wisdom and weariness, transforming it into a genuinely startling performance. Wolff, for his part, holds his own opposite the veteran actor. Amir initially reads as a tedious, slicked-back asshole, the kind of fast-talking, self-loathing sidekick who inevitably betrays the protagonist in a different kind of story. Instead, Sarnoski’s screenplay gives Amir an honest-to-god arc, with Wolff convincingly peeling back the character’s thin rind of coked-up insecurity to reveal the anguish and sincerity beneath.

Pig presents an eccentric, syncretic worldview that can be difficult to pin down: It blends elements seemingly plucked from Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, addiction recovery, and the traditionally antagonistic philosophical schools of Stoicism and Epicureanism. This unorthodox fusion, although bewildering at times, is presented with a conviction and poignancy that is consistently exhilarating. Improbably, this grim and deeply strange story about a man looking for his pig resolves into a heartfelt appeal to live with integrity, decency, and an appreciation for the splendor of the present moment. It’s a bit like a magic trick – one that provokes, surprises, and delights, to paraphrase renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adrià (whose avant-garde cuisine Rob would likely dismiss, funnily enough). The novelty and potency of that sleight-of-hand makes Pig one of the most fascinating films of the year.

Rating: A-

Pig opens in select theaters on July 16, 2021.