Wednesday 14 November 2012

Pig (2011)

Director: Henry Barrial
Stars: Rudolf Martin, Heather Ankeny, Keith Diamond and Ines Dali
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
In one of the more accurate plot synopses at IMDb, 'a man wakes up alone in the middle of the desert with a black hood on his head and his hands tied behind his back.' He has amnesia with mere glimpses of memory. A slip of paper in his pocket reads 'Manny Elder', which may or may not be his name: he doesn't even remember that much, let alone what might have led him to have been dumped out there in an apparent execution. Isabel, a young mother who finds him in the desert and nurses him back to health at her home in Page, AZ, knows from experience that drug smugglers do that sort of thing, as her dead husband was one. Our mystery man doesn't know what he does. Obviously something is going on, but we're not in on the secret either and we don't know who is. We're forced to rediscover this man's past along with him and, because we have no idea where discovery might come from, we have to pay a great deal of attention.

What's important here? Should we focus on the little details that he can remember or those that he can't. Snippets do come back to him, like the tune to London Bridge or a figure of a knight in stained glass at Isabel's house, but nothing substantial or apparently useful. On the flipside, he's forgotten that 'Cheers!' is a toast or that bees sting. Is it notable that wine and pain elicit similar reactions in him? They carry shock and bring a memory that he can't quite define. Is it important that he doesn't dream? Certainly he's completely functional: he speaks English, he can read and write, even draw. He knows what things are, for the most part, and he's at home with his bodily functions. If this was deliberately done to him, who might have done it? All we see is Isabel and her young son, Jason, along with some quick visits from a local doctor to tend to his immediate wounds. The only real clue is the name in his pocket, Manny Elder.

Isabel searches online and finds that he runs a hotel called the Continental in LA, so off he goes to see what might come of talking with him. However, before Elder's door even opens, suddenly he's back in the desert in those plastic cuffs and that black hood. We're thirty minutes into the picture, yet it's apparently starting again. And again. We're only given the benefit of one detail that the man living through this bizarre process doesn't see: the numbers at the corner of the screen that appear each time everything reboots. It was 1.2 when the film began, then it became 1.3 and 1.4, always counting up. We don't have to run through everything again though, we find ourselves right back at the Continental to discover that Manny Elder is a friend, that our guy is called Justin Reeves and that he's subscribed to a substitute teacher agency. Surely it isn't an accidental irony that he likes puzzles, given that he himself is now his own biggest puzzle.

What makes this film special is that, as answers arrive in a flood they only bring more questions flowing along with them. With each fresh discovery Reeves makes about who he is and why this might be happening to him, we make that discovery with him and we can't help but realise that they don't all seem to be compatible with each other. Initially they're just subtle inconsistencies but they escalate in grandeur, to the point that, while he's enjoying some fresh air in LA, a lady in a car calls out to him in German, in which language he promptly answers her. She tells him that he speaks German because, like her, he was born in East Berlin and his name is Lukas Ernst. By now, we're forced into a constant reevaluation of each piece of evidence we're given, juggling it with every other piece to try to build a coherent bigger picture. Increasingly, it feels like we're looking at pieces from two different puzzles, but we try to reconcile everything to being one.

The name behind Pig is Henry Barrial, who wrote and directed, and it's surprising to find that he doesn't have a large body of work behind him. While this features no major stars and obviously doesn't enjoy a major budget, it's a complex film that doesn't feel like it could have sprung out of nowhere. The actors are experienced and some are recognisable. Rudolf Martin, who plays the mystery man at the heart of the film, has many credits going back to 1993, including Hollywood features like Bedazzled and Swordfish. I recognised him from television, where he played Ziva's half-brother Ari on NCIS. All three of the major supporting cast, Heather Ankeny, Keith Diamond and Ines Dali, have similar experience in varying quantities. The production values are high, budget notwithstanding, and there are few issues with the technical side. My biggest complaint was an annoying spelling mistake that reoccurred a few times towards the end of the film.
While Barrial's credits are varied, this would seem to be a natural extension of his core focus as a writer/director. Pig is his fourth feature as a director, three of which he also wrote, and while I haven't seen any of his other films, it's clear just from their synopses that they're are all about relationships. Some Body is a search for something beyond sex in the singles scene, Heartland has to do with a girl looking after a brother with Downs syndrome, and True Love examines three couples at different stages of their respective relationships. While Pig may seem to be something of a departure, it really isn't, as at heart it's about a man's relationship with himself at its most strained. It's a science fiction movie without a single spaceship, ray gun or monster, but it's still science fiction, which at it's best and purest is about tweaking the world in a single scientific way to see how everything else changes because of it. That's exactly what Barrial does.

To my mind, it's Barrial's script that most obviously succeeds here but not completely. He frames the science fiction as a mystery, not to be obtuse but to keep us engaged in the puzzle, and like all the best puzzles it continues to make us think even once we've solved it. Some will figure out what's going on sooner than others, but nobody will leave wondering what happened. Instead, they'll be wondering about that single tweak itself, initially about whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, but then when they realise that, like most changes, it's intrinsically neither good nor bad, they'll wonder about the morality of the concept instead, whether it's ethical or not and how it could or would be abused. If it isn't black or white, how grey does it get? The ending itself is a good one, though it isn't nearly as iconically phrased as other provocative movie endings like those of Brazil or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which still spark debate today.

Rudolf Martin is deceptively great here. As the story is entirely about him, he has to carry it and he proves up to the task, even though he's in a state of confusion for most of it and is frequently missing lines because he has no memory to provide answers to people's questions. He becomes more grounded as the film runs on, with each discovery about who he is, who he was and why he's in this story to begin with, but he plays it more subtly and with less flash than Guy Pearce did in Memento, another puzzle picture. The three main supporting actors back him up well, though their respective stories are fleshed out to different degrees. As Anouk, the German lady who finds an old friend by chance, Dali's is most naturally contained. Diamond's as Manny Elder has a wider scope but it's fairly covered too. It was Ankeny's role that satisfied me least, not for her acting, which is excellent, but for where Barrial takes, or doesn't take, her character.

I had a lot more questions about Isabel than are ever spoken to, as she's a complex and pivotal character worthy of much more exploration than is attempted here. Perhaps it would be tough to include that without detracting from the central character, but I think the fault may be with just how far Barrial was willing to let the science fiction aspect of this story take him. The big reveal, if it could be called that, comes too early to be seen as a twist ending, but too late to shape how the rest of the film goes with any real depth. I felt that Barrial's background with straight drama made him see this as an insular story about one man, but the science fiction approach is bigger than that and once that door is opened it really can't be closed again. Barrial is good at setting up questions but the answers he provides don't complete the puzzle. He isn't willing to take a crack at the new world he's created, remaining content instead to focus on one man within it.

It's not surprising that Pig won for Best Science Fiction Feature at the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2011, and it's not surprising that it's won a whole slew of other awards at other film festivals across the map. Sadly there are few enough serious science fiction features made at this level that when a good one shows up, it's almost guaranteed to accumulate laurels like there's no tomorrow. This is certainly a good one, but it's not a great one and it shouldn't have been the shoe in that it was. I'll certainly be checking out Barrial's previous films, as well as his next one, The House That Jack Built, due in 2013, as they all appear to be straight dramas and it's the dramatic side of this film that he shined brightest at. If he comes back to the science fiction genre, I hope he'll be willing to look beyond the dramatic to the wider questions of change, not just to an individual person or a couple but to society at large.


Anonymous said...

Hi everyone,

Well the film was good, but I felt like I'd seen this story before, then it hit me. I'm not sure if story of the film "Pig (2011)" is from the same book/writer etc, but I'm quite sure that I'd seen the almost same story in another film years ago. I wrote a post to it's (Pig) youtube page about these similarity and added that I'm sorry if this one is from the same book, or the film is a remake etc,, but my post is deleted the second day. So I'm writing now here to learn.

First of all I should say that unfortunately I couldn't remember the title of the old film. As I said it's been almost 15 years more or less, so it's not that easy to remember even if the film/story was so good that could get a strong room in my mind.

I'm a doc film maker and a big fan of good movies, and I'm grateful to those who put their talent and intellectual work of great movies, stories. I remember that at the college a professor had told us the thesis of another big writer, that since the beginning of the history, human being could produce 17 original stories. Any story that we are reading, writing, watching etc belongs and variations of one of these 17 main stories. Quite disappointing huh? Well I didn't really try to check, but nowadays it's like we are told the same stories under different packages more then ever. We may discuss about this later, but now I'd like to write about the main subject before it fades in my dreambox:) .

Ok, details about the old movie which I couldn't remember the title. It was a Hollywood product I'm sure. From 70's or early 80's. The cars, costumes, props etc reminds me an early Dirty Harry movie, same skin. Colour film.

Story,, What I'm going to write down here is what I'm sure about the movie.

1) The hero is a male, one day he wakes up and doesn't remember anything then all comes back. He had dreamed about something that makes him sad, he remembers a women in his dream. He constantly dreams about this women who is swimming in sea in a sunny day, and he walks with the women they kiss etc etc. So he was sure that they were lovers, but he cant remember the name or anything more about the dream which he thinks was real.

2) He has an object with him which he believes that it relates to his dream, so he focuses on this object to find the answers.

3) He is in relation with a women, and he tells about his dreams and that he thinks it was real. She tries to help him to solve the mystery.

4) He believes that he this is a conspiracy and some people around are lying to him, he tries to find out. He also thinks that these guys don't want him to remember his past.

5) He finds out that he can speak Greek.

6) Finally he decides to get help of a doctor. The doctor uses hypnosis, but it doesn't work. He just remembers that this women in his dreams is dead.

7) He talks to his work colloquies about the dreams etc (he was working for kind of a state intelligence agency) .

8) After all action he finds same tapes containing his voice recordings. He finds out his brain wiped out with his will because of a tragedy. After his lovely wife's death at sea he wants to take his life. Then his friend tells him about this new memory wipe technique, he accepts but with one condition, he doesn't want to remember anything about his past. But obviously the unguessable power of the human brain makes it's trick etc etc.

A) What do you think about these similarities between these two films? Is it just a coincidence? Or if it's not, then how do we call this?

B) For God sake, can somebody finds out what was the title of this old movie??

Thanks in advance for any answer.


Anonymous said...

In response to the 22 August 2014 post by Cem, sounds like the movie you're remembering is "The Groundstar Conspiracy", 1972, starring George Peppard and Michael Sarrazin.