There was a time when I thought Lady in the Water was M. Night Shyamalan's worst movie. (It's hard to beat the concept of a mermaid secretly living in an apartment-house swimming pool.) But then came The Happening (angry vegetation responding to the threat of global warming), to which the worst-of title immediately passed. Then came a frustrating tie—the dreadful double-header of the Last Airbender and After Earth. That was a tough call (although I'd give After Earth the edge).
Now there's a new boss in town. It's Shyamalan's latest movie, called Old, and it's hard to imagine that it might ever be surpassed in the area of awfulness.
Not coming up with his own stories is usually a good idea for Shyamalan, but here it makes no difference. Old is based on (or "inspired by," a classic dodge) a graphic novel by French writer Pierre Oscar Lévy. The book, called Sandcastle, is about a Mediterranean beach where time mysteriously speeds up so fast that visitors find themselves living out their whole lives in a single day (with death signaling the end of their vacations). The author offers no explanation for this place—what it is, what caused it—which makes the story's inherent horror all the more horrifying.
But Shyamalan is burdened with a PG-13 rating, which doesn't encourage downbeat stories or eerie, open-ended conclusions. Everything must be explained, and neatly wrapped up at the end. So the writer-director is compelled to invent stuff, which is no longer his strong suit. Thus, the entire ending is an awkward fabrication, nowhere even suggested in the novel and unpersuasive in its every particular. And the rest of the script is a fiesta of infelicities. There's an English rapper (Aaron Pierre) on the fatal beach, and Shyamalan, possibly not a rap enthusiast, has decided to call him "Mid-Sized Sedan." Then there's the persistently daft dialogue, which batters us like flying debris in a hurricane wind:
"Something is going on with time on this beach," says one character, stupidly.
"Somebody will figure this out," says another. "We just have to wait for them."
"I went to private school," says Mid-Sized Sedan.
There are a number of good actors imprisoned in this movie, playing either the doomed adults or their children (at various stages of physical development). Gael García Bernal is the nominal lead, accompanied by Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) as his wife and Alex Wolff (Hereditary and Pig) as one of their kids. Also in evidence are Lost alumnus Ken Leung, Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace), Eliza Scanlen (Little Women), and—the movie's creepiest character—mad-eyed Francesca Eastwood (daughter of Clint, half-sister of Scott). All of these performers must have been hoping for something much different when they signed on Shyamalan's dotted line. As one character here says to another after viciously slashing him with a knife, "Sorry."
Pig is a Nicolas Cage movie without the showpiece freak-outs the man's fans and detractors have come to expect by now, late in the latter days of his near-40-year career. Which is to say the picture is not another paycheck-begging exercise like Drive Angry or Bangkok Dangerous or the legendarily pitiful 2006 Wicker Man ("Not the bees! Not the bees!"). Instead, it recalls the bold performances of his celebrated past—in films like Adaptation (2002), Moonstruck (1987), and of course Leaving Las Vegas (1995), for which he won an Oscar.
Cage has worked with top directors over the years: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, the Coen brothers. David Lynch, for whom he starred in the 1990 Wild at Heart, has likened him to a jazz musician. With Pig, he's taking a flier on first-time feature director Michael Sarnoski, who co-wrote the movie's script with first-time screenwriter Vanessa Block. They can all be proud of the results of this collaboration.
Cage plays a virtual hermit named Rob, who lives alone, more or less, in a ramshackle cabin in the soggy backwoods of Oregon. Rob's only companion is a pig he calls Apple, with whom he forages for black truffles to trade with a slick young wholesaler named Amir (Alex Wolff, of Hereditary), who uses his profits from the truffle trade (a pound of the pricey fungi can sell for thousands of dollars) to finance his hotshot lifestyle.
Fifteen years ago, before his wife died and his world fell apart, Rob was a celebrity chef in the foodie paradise of Portland. He doesn't miss his old life in the big city, but he has to return there after a couple of creeps burst into his cabin and beat him up and make off with his valuable truffle pig. His search for the little beast takes him first to a high-end restaurant run by a former employee named Finway (David Knell), who currently specializes in pretentious food of the sort that's served under glass bells filled with the smoke of smoldering pine cones (make that Douglas fir pine cones). Rob remembers that Finway once dreamed of opening his own English-style pub but was diverted by the gourmet trade. Looking around at the clientele, he is quietly contemptuous. "You live your life for them and they don't even see you," he says. "You don't even see yourself."
Still dirty and disheveled from the home invasion in which Apple was stolen, Rob continues slogging around Portland collecting clues as to the missing pig's whereabouts. Not everyone is happy to see him. "I remember a time when your name meant something to people," says a sneering food-scene veteran named Edgar (Darius Pierce). "But now you have no value. You don't exist."
As we soon enough realize, the movie is not really about a pig: Apple is just a snouty MacGuffin. The picture is about human values, both timeless and transient, and Cage, gray-haired and caked with dirt and dried blood, projects the importance of that distinction with a masterful calm. He also sautés a pan full of pigeon parts and mushrooms and discusses the joy of persimmons with a little boy on the porch of the house in which Rob and his late wife once lived. The movie is warmed by its consistently human scale.
Some viewers might have quibbles with the picture. There's a long sequence, for example, in which Rob visits a brutal underground fight club that caters to restaurant personnel, and while this might be a real thing, it still seems unlikely, which is a distraction. But the movie is an impressive success for its key creators, and a quiet triumph for Cage, who appears to be back at last after being gone far too long.