Javier Bardem gives depth to the otherwise conventional Everybody Knows
This review is part of Reel Nine’s coverage of the 41st Denver Film Festival. You can find reviews of other films at the festival here.
Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben) is the definition of a prestige picture, the sort of heady drama from an esteemed director armed with a stacked cast that seems destined for awards season contention. It truly has it all: it’s written and directed by Iranian filmmaker and two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), making his Spanish language debut here, and stars Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Penelope Cruz (Vanilla Sky), arguably the two most famous Spanish actors in the world. As can be the norm when shooting for the moon with these sorts of projects, the end result is instead a simply fine film not quite worthy of the hype conjured by the big names that surround it.
The film follows Laura (Cruz), a Spanish expat living in Argentina who returns to Spain with her two children for her sister’s wedding in their small hometown outside Madrid. From the get-go it’s clear that Laura and her family have a storied, secretive history, from unresolved conflicts over money to a long romance with local winemaker and childhood friend Paco (Bardem). All the skeletons in the family’s closet are thrust into the light when Irene (Carla Campra), Laura’s daughter, is kidnapped amidst the festivities. Hard choices over how to save her expose the family’s deep-seeded insecurities, entangle Paco in the drama, and threaten to unravel all those involved.
Despite the illusion that this is a Prisoners-like thriller, what the film is really interested in is the divisions caused by class and our tendency to bury these conflicts deep inside, only for them to rear their ugly heads at the worst possible moment. This interest ultimately makes this story into the tale of a commoner, here in the form of Bardem’s Paco, who is forced to thanklessly deal with the consequences of the lies of a deeply flawed group of stuffy, despised aristocrats who aren’t worthy of his good intentions and are even resentful of having to turn to someone they deem so lowly for help. We’ve seen both sides of this coin before: class dramas have been setting these sorts of characters up in similar situations since the days of Shakespeare, and kidnapping dramas have long used complex family dynamics to deepen the impact of its cat-and-mouse games. Combining the two is an inspired choice, but Farhadi’s script does little to capitalize on the potential of his premise.
If there’s anything he gains from the pairing, it’s the solid performance of Bardem, who revels in slowly breaking down this jolly charmer into a deeply conflicted man faced with impossible choices. What makes it so effective (and so heartbreaking) is that the film constantly seems ready to drop a twist where Paco is in someway the bad guy, therefore releasing the audience from the mounting guilt of watching him increasingly suffer under the ills of this family’s demons. But the catharsis never comes, and instead Paco is a good man simply wronged again and again by a family that circumstance has forced him to love. His simple beginnings curse him to be never accepted by them, despite the rise in his station through his hard work and his dedication to seeing Irene found. Bardem sells the tragedy of it all in every scene, playing Paco as if imitating a train wreck in slow motion, slowly collapsing under the pressure. It’s not like this hasn’t been done before, but no one does intensity behind the eyes better than him, who can channel inner conflict into any character he pits his mind to, whether it’s a single father facing his impending death (Biutiful) or a stone-cold killer (No Country for Old Men). Here, in the guise of an everyman, Bardem shows he can be at the top of his game even in the simplest of roles.
Bardem’s assured performance makes it all the more disappointing that everything around him is simply passable. Perhaps most egregious is forcing Cruz into a trope-ridden role in which she spends most of her time crying, wandering around aimlessly shouting for her daughter, and leaving the hard decisions to the men. Farhadi, who gave complex, dynamic roles to women with A Separation, the film that popularized him in the international sphere, doesn’t give Cruz or the multitudes of women in the family anything interesting to do despite the fact they make up most of the main cast. It’s a trope-ridden affair, with female characters defined by their emotional volatility, jealousy, and propensity for gossip, traits that provide nothing fresh in this already deeply conventional film. It doesn’t help that Farhadi’s script is overindulgent, making the film far too long and sometimes even repetitive. He would have benefited from trimming the fat and letting a quicker pace make this at the very least a more exciting feature, but he opts instead to conjure up the same pain-points of family drama over and over again. It’s a slow-burn for most of its 132 minutes, and the steadily languid style only serves to remind you of the film’s formulaic trappings.
Like the dreams of the tortured family it depicts, Everybody Knows is a film full of promise but held back by an adherence to convention. It’s a step back for Farhadi, who is starting to turn his penchant for domestic drama into a comfort rather than a creative challenge. No amount of grand posturing, lush cinematography, and solid work from Bardem can hide the lifeless corpse underneath this expensive soap opera. The only secret that will everyone will know after watching this film is that some filmmakers think the appearance of esteem is enough for a film to convince us that it’s worthy of greatness, even though the reality is that it still takes more than finesse to make a film memorable.