One's identity is a slippery thing. It is obviously informed by what we bring to the table in terms of life experiences but it is also shaped by the perspectives of the people around us. One could debate the relative importance of these two components but their interaction and impact is undeniable. Writer / director Henry Barrial explores this idea to great effect in his thriller Pig.
The film opens with our protagonist (Rudolf Martin) in a bit of a pickle. He has been dumped in the desert with a hood over his head and his hands tied behind his back. To make matters worse, he has no memory of who he is or how he got there. He manages to free himself but collapses. When he comes to, he finds himself in the care of Isabel (Heather Ankeny) who lives in a remote location near the desert with her little boy. As our protagonist slowly regains his health, the enormity of his dilemma hits him. He has no idea where he came from or even what kind of man he really is (nice guys are hardly ever left to die in the desert). The only clue he has is a scrap of paper found in his pocket with the name Manny Elder written on it. To find out who he is, he must first find Manny Elder.
To say anything more specific about Pig's plot would be unfair. It's a twisty little film where the kinks in the story come early and often. Just as we settle into the groove of things, the film will switch things up in ways that are surprising and engaging. This is the sort of movie that demands an active viewer because any period of inattention will likely cause one to miss a crucial detail. And I assure you, the devil and many of the film's tiny pleasures are in the details. Still staying clear of spoiler territory, let's just say that there is a cyclical element to the way that the story is told. Watching little elements getting tweaked as certain scenes are repeated (but not really) is a fair bit of fun.
Of course, it's not all storytelling gimmicks at play here. There's a very real sense of gravity and tragedy undercutting the proceedings. As our unnamed protagonist discovers more and more about his past, there's a sinking feeling that perhaps some stones aren't meant to be overturned. He seems perfectly nice as the blank slate that he is, but what if finally learning who he was ends up getting in the way of who he could be? Would the truth really have been worth it? This is even communicated in the way that Isabel views him. She and her son grow to love this stranger who came to them from the desert. While the film leads us to believe that she might be hiding a few things of her own, her apprehension about not really knowing him after all feels quite genuine.
For a micro-budgeted independent film like this to succeed, it has to get maximum mileage out of every element. This starts with the tremendously capable cast. There are two strong female performances from Heather Ankeny and Ines Dali. I haven't mentioned Dali yet (with good reason) but she pops up as a person from the protagonist's past and brings an open warmth to her role which further highlights the great work that Ankeny is doing as the guarded but supportive Isabel. Keith Diamond brings a good deal of screen presence to a key role that is tinged with more than a little mystery. The most challenging role, unsurprisingly, belongs to Rudolf Martin as the protagonist. This performance demands a wide range of emotions from him and he delivers consistently.
If I have any quibbles with the film, they exist mostly in the climax. After the intriguing and suspenseful build up, Barrial chooses to release the tension by offering an explanation in the form of a cleanly laid out exposition dump. It's a mildly disappointing way to learn the truth but hardly damaging to the film as a whole. If anything, the film goes out on a strong note with a final shot that is devastating in its depiction of what happens to a person when they get exactly what they asked for.
The anamorphic widescreen image is perfectly watchable although there are a few problematic spots. The opening scenes suffer from banding and a few shots later in the film show obvious horizontal scan lines. A few of the darker shots also look a bit grainy. Other than these occasional issues, the colors are vivid (the blue sky pops against the dry yellow desert) and skin tones look decent. Black levels are also fairly steady with reasonable shadow detail.
The audio is presented with a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 mixes. I chose to view the film with the 5.1 surround mix and found it to be quite capable. The soundtrack features plenty of ominous tones and sudden aural jolts accompanying our lead's memory flashes. Their presence is felt without being overbearing. In other places, the spare rhythmic drone of the soundtrack effectively lulls us into a false sense of security. The only minor issue is a couple of spots where the dialogue drops a little too low in the mix.
For a micro-budgeted film, Pig is certainly overstuffed with extras. We kick things off with roughly 17 Deleted Scenes. Some of these are extensions to scenes that made it into the film while others show bits that were completely re-staged and re-shot. A lot of these are small character bits but there are a few scenes that help explain a strange interaction with a motel clerk to a greater extent. Next up, we have a Kickstarter Video that the filmmakers used to raise funds to finish the film after filming on their own dime for the most part. We get to hear from writer / director Henry Barrial and producer Mark Stolaroff about their intent with the film as well as the themes they are trying to explore. A promotional trailer helps drive those points home.
A Lonely Boy Video has the film's lead, Rudolf Martin, making a short clip (in character) to post to YouTube regarding his dilemma. It's a cute marketing idea and nothing more. Next, we have two fairly substantial Q&A Sessions at the Nashville Film Festival and Sci-Fi London. While the sessions certainly have a bit of overlap in the material they cover, they end up pairing together quite nicely to give us a behind the scenes look at the filming process. Barrial and Stolaroff tackle topics ranging from the difficulties of shooting in the desert, the interesting casting process as well as coming up with clever approaches to costume design and production design on a shoestring budget. There is also some discussion of thematic concerns and how the film slowly evolved during the shooting process as more details were filled in to keep the audience hooked into the mystery.
Besides a few Theatrical Trailers, the only other substantial extra is an Audio Commentary with writer / director Henry Barrial, producer Mark Stolaroff and co-producer Alex Cutler. As commentary tracks go, this is a fairly informative and engaging one. All the participants are clearly passionate about the project and have plenty of anecdotes to share about the filming process. We get to hear about the perils of filming in remote locations (including numerous vehicular issues) as well as all the creative decisions that had to be made in order to keep the budget low. Barrial talks about the real-world story that inspired him in the first place. The trio also mention the impact that test screenings had on the editing process and how certain elements were retrofitted to engage the audience more. In a welcome moment of honesty, it is also apparent that not everyone was on board with these changes. This is the sort of commentary track that aspiring filmmakers could learn a lot from.
Pig is the sort of project that demands a healthy imagination; both from its creators and the audience watching it. Henry Barrial has taken a tiny budget, a talented cast and crew and a few dollops of creativity to deliver a thriller that engages even as it disorients the viewer. Even if you figure out the central mystery halfway through (I admit my brain went to some outlandish places as I overanalyzed this one), the human element will keep you plugged in all the way to the emotional finish. Highly Recommended.