Robin Feld, played by Nicholas Cage, speaks his first line (to the pig) about nine minutes in.

Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are solely the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN. The op-ed below contains spoilers for the movie “Pig.”

CNN  — 

Of all 2021’s surprises, a movie delivering gentle, minimally violent emotional catharsis and starring Nicolas Cage has to be one of the strangest. The plot of the new movie “Pig,” released on video on demand last week, sounds like a “John Wick” riff: A reclusive truffle hunter’s beloved pig is stolen, and he journeys into the underbelly of the city he once called home to get her back.

Sara Stewart

But it’s not like you might think. First of all, that underbelly turns out to be the restaurant world of Portland, Oregon. It’s hardly a den of assassins, although, in a scene that’s both stomach-churning and funny, it does turn out to have its own fight club. More surprising, Cage’s character, Robin Feld, is a pensive, quiet soul – a master chef who’s slow to anger and can reduce cold-hearted men to tears with his cooking.

For sure, there is something inherently hilarious about Cage growling, “Who. Has. My. Pig?” But more than anything else, this enchantingly odd movie grows to enfold you in a lingering sense of melancholy that rings eerily true, especially right now.

This resonance hit home when I went into a grocery store the other day, where half the customers weren’t wearing masks despite the store’s posted request. I felt the flickering of a familiar anger – and then a sort of internal shrug. The idea of returning to perma-rage about other people’s lack of concern for public health is simply exhausting; it’s overwhelming. Instead of anger or frustration, I found myself experiencing a kind of grief. Many of us, I think, are mourning the loss of normal life, and public civility, both of which feel like they may be gone for good.

Between the rapidly unfolding Delta variant nightmare and the UN’s new report on the inevitability of major climate disasters, we’re all living in a time of unparalleled anxiety and sadness. What better time for a little movie about a man, a swine and the unbearable weight of grief? Are we not all in some way Robin Feld, struggling out of the wilderness with unkempt beards and dirty faces, squinting at civilization like it’s a memory we’ve long forgotten, trying to get back something invaluable that we’ve lost?

Robin starts the movie silent – he speaks his first line (to the pig) about nine minutes in – and gradually recovers his way with language as the film progresses. Then he gives a couple of memorable monologues. In the first, he describes in detail the way Portland will likely disappear in an earthquake and tsunami in the not too distant future. So, he concludes, who gives a s**t about petty disagreements? It’s a bleakly comic speech – this guy is intense – but also speaks to a growing awareness of how precarious our existence really is.

We learn, through scant exposition, that Robin has suffered a loss before this: His wife, Lori. Making Robin a grieving widower is a pretty cliched trope, which is why first-time feature director Michael Sarnoski thankfully doles out only a couple of references.

“We don’t get a lot of things to really care about,” Robin says. This is the film’s mantra. Appreciate those things and hold them close while you can. As a dog person, I applaud the film’s pointing out that animals can be as meaningful as anyone else, and that it is natural for us to feel devastated at their loss.

“Pig” also shows a wonderful willingness to humanize the characters around Robin, even his adversaries. Amir (Alex Wolff), a hotshot truffle dealer who ends up chauffeuring Robin around, initially comes off as a shallow jerk but – in a great performance from Wolff – turns out to be troubled, but a mensch. Amir’s restaurateur dad (Adam Arkin) presents as a first-rate jackass but we get a look into his suffering, too. And a high-concept chef (David Knell) – whose molecular gastronomy menu is taken apart by Robin in a brutal but amusing speech – is shown to be a vulnerable guy who’s drifted far from his true ambitions.

These characters are a valuable reminder: All people, even the ones we’re pretty sure are awful, are carrying baggage we probably don’t know about.

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    Some foodies have taken issue with the film’s takedown of fancy cuisine, but even if its portrait of Portland isn’t wildly accurate, Robin’s philosophy feels in tune with our collective turn toward home cooking. The film’s sections are titled with simple food: Mushroom tart, French toast, a roasted bird and a salted baguette. As the camera pans through his cabin’s kitchen, we see his jars of home-pickled vegetables, his container of Morton’s salt. (No Himalayan pink salt here.) You can make magic with the basics.

    “There’s nothing out here for most of us,” Robin says. Hopefully, that’s not true – or if it is, it won’t be forever. But the fantasy that “Pig” offers, the relief of narrowing your world down to a few carefully curated passions, is a welcome escape at a time when all around us the world seems to be crumbling. We don’t get a lot of things to really care about. We have to hold our pigs close, whoever they may be.