Nicolas Cage is in fact a very good actor. That might sound like it goes without saying, or it might not, but it does help to have the reminder: after something like a quarter of a century building an ever- grander persona as a goofy, kitschy weirdo, prone to glowering and bellowing and twitchy, almost Shatnerian over-delivery of his dialogue, it can be hard to keep in mind that he's not a walking meme, he's an actor, and one amply capable of taking the craft very seriously. He has found it to be more profitable to turn himself into a boutique kitsch brand than to still act, but that isn't really the same thing as forgetting how to do the job.

To wit: Pig, in which Cage is up to something so much more restrained and psychologically focused than anything he's done in his late period. It's obviously his best performance since at least Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, way back in 2009, and even that was as much an example of him letting his ludicrous side out to better-than-average effect thanks to the very clear designs of director Werner Herzog; if we want to go all the way back to the last time he was this great in the role of an actual human being, I'm not sure if I see a place to stop until we get all the way back to Leaving Las Vegas in 1995. Given that Pig's one-sentence plot description is "a surly misanthrope has to leave his rundown survivalist shack in the woods to find his kidnapped truffle pig in Portland, OR", that it could produce Cage's most thoughtful, grounded work in an entire literal generation is nothing shy of a miracle.

The surly misanthrope is a remarkably grizzled old truffle-hunter named Rob, whose attitude towards the human race is amply demonstrated in a very early scenet hat should feel contrived in its showy minimalism, but for some miraculous reason doesn't: he sits in dead silence as his prattling buyer, Amir (Alex Wolff), a young hipster with obvious social-climbing aims, engages in empty pleasantries when he comes to pick up the gorgeous truffle that Rob and his pig have just harvested. As Wolff delivers his lines with a clipped, unlikable chumminess, Cage does nothing to react to him at all, sitting quietly in partial silhouette at the side of the frame and staring into empty space. It kicks of the character and acting dynamics that will dominate the rest of the film which mostly consists of Rob gruffly forcing Amir to drive him around Portland, as they interrogate their respective contacts in the city's restaurant scene for clues to the missing pig's whereabouts - Rob having once been Robin Feld, the celebrity chef for an entire epoch of the development of Portland's fine dining cuisine.

As co-conceived by director Michael Sarnoski (making a freakishly assured feature debut) and producer Vanessa Block, the story of Pig is one of people disappearing into their own darkest emotions, withdrawing from humanity because of the pain of being alive and not realising or caring what it has cost them to do so. The relationship between Rob and his pig is, on the one hand, ennobling; the animal is the only thing in the world he cares about on any level, and there is something sweetly sad about his monomaniacal quest to find his friend. On the other hand, it is a sign of the brutal nihilism that Rob has embraced in the wake of his wife's death (nicely signified by nothing but a cassette tape that he plays for barely a second before ejecting it in almost physical pain), a rejection of any relationship with any being that's too complicated for him to deal with, without sacrificing the purity of his hermetic detachment from the world. This idea of people sacrificing a connection to what means something to them emotionally, for no other reason than because emotions are hard and can hurt, recurs throughout Pig; the moment that impressed me the most is also the most narratively inconsequential, as Cage quietly berates a new celebrity chef played by David Knell, for abandoning his dream of a restaurant as a socially cozy experience, in favor of icily intellectual trend-hopping. Sarnoski and editor Brett W. Bachman hold in a static close-up on Knell's face, locked into a skeletal grain of increasing humiliation as Cage rumbles with increasing menace on the soundtrack. It's as painfully tense as anything else in this might-as-well-call-it-a-thriller, and the stakes are literally only if a one-scene character will be briefly shamed into breaking his plastic gaze of fake affability.

So that gives us both of the film's major concerns: the mourning process, and the way that people can destroy themselves to preserve the sanctity of their bereavement and never, ever try to find meaning in the world again; and food. Of all the expectations it's possible to enter as one sits down to Pig with little knowledge of it other than "Cage's porcine buddy has been stolen and he is pissed", that it would turn out to be our best foodie movie since Ratatouille was emphatically not on my list. Yet here we are, and there's even a Ratatouille-esque climax centered on the indescribable emotional power of food as a trigger for memory - played there for startling uplift, here for thoroughly expected misery. It is certainly not a light film, Pig. As indeed a film fixated on loss and the ways people think about what they've lost would have to be.

The lack of lightness is literal as well as figurative. Cinematography Patrick Scola has given to us a very damn dark movie, perpetually underlit in almost every scene; the impression one gets is of a fill light with no key light, in which we see only smudgy edges and have to squint a little bit to see Cage's features (the low lighting obviously "follows" Cage, but since he's in practically every scene and surely a majority of the film's shots, it's hard to think about the fact that Wolff, for example, is lit relatively brightly). The big exception are his eyes, which are occasionally given just the slightest boost, giving him a severe, predatory look, pure rage buried so deep in his gloomy depression that it only rarely erupts anywhere else but the wolflike slashing of his eyes. And this becomes especially noticeable thanks to the film's aggressive use of close-ups, most of them jittering with a nervous handheld camera, giving the heavy gloominess of the images an added charge.

So... not a bouncy summer funtime extravaganza, then. But a tremendously potent human story that's as much about the beautiful things in life it's easy to overlook as about the desperation that leads people into their miserable little cocoons of self-abnegation. The most surprising thing about Pig is that after almost an hour and a half of claustrophobia and Cage's leathery anger (at 92 minutes, this is a superlatively tight movie, a poster child for why people like me keep bitching about how they need to make shorter movies), it ends on a note of something akin to optimism. Cage's outstanding performance and Wolff's extremely good performance - surely the best that the young and arguably over-exposed actor has been in a movie to date - form a sturdy emotional core that the movie is able to gently develop into something actually moving, in its grim and brittle way. It's tough, but there's something sweetly vulnerable inside of it, and that conflict is enough to make this easily one of the best films so far of an admittedly underperforming 2021.