AFI Fest Review: ‘Everybody Knows’ Is A Bland Thriller With Dark Family Ties

2018 AFI FILM FESTIVAL: Two-time Oscar champ for “Best Foreign Language Film” (the award itself goes to the respective country), Asghar Farhadi has crafted brilliant films in his illustrious career, which is why his latest feels more disappointing than it should. Instead of his usual simmering familial melodrama that crescendos to a scalding boil, “Everybody Knows” peaks during the early festivities and then devolves into a standard episode of CBS’s “Without A Trace.” With little commentary on the lives wrapped into the turmoil of a child kidnapping, Farhadi gets lost in the temporary high of genre experimentation. Unfortunately, the end result is a bland thriller that doesn’t capitalize on its potential to be as socially insightful as Akira Kurosawa’s masterful “High and Low” abduction drama.

Set in a quaint yet vibrant small town outside of Madrid, Laura (Penélope Cruz) returns home to celebrate the wedding of her youngest sister, Ana (Imma Cuesta). The trip is both a reunion and a means to strengthen old bonds. Laura’s move to Buenos Aires, Argentina long ago created a greater divide than geography ever could. Her relatives make ends meet at tailor shops or investing in local businesses, but have little in the way of luxury. Much of their money was lost during an estate transaction between Laura and her ex-boyfriend Paco (Javier Bardem), a sale that led to permanent resentment towards the former couple. Sadly, the momentous occasion to let bygones be bygones is dashed when Laura’s teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) is kidnapped in the middle of the reception. While searching the local church’s bell tower, Laura receives a text message demanding a ransom of $300,000 for Irene’s return.

Penélope Cruz ravishes heartstrings with a grieving mother role whose world is turned asunder. Laura’s zestful spirit and sturdy composure crumble in agonizing fashion. However, her tenacity to comply with any demands to keep her daughter alive remains steadfast. Regrettably, Laura does less of the heavy lifting as the dilemma progresses; the baton of responsibility is passed to Paco. The past lovers share a secret with more visibility to the family than a strobe light. Because of this foreknowledge that’s limited in scope, the mystery party behind the abduction might be within household reach. Instead of staging his drama as a re-imagining of “Clue” in family feud form, Farhadi drops this golden opportunity for cliché unmasking. Audiences are provided a single red herring to distract from the real perpetrator, eradicating any alternative speculation. As such, there’s so little in the way of suspense, a staple element in most of Farhadi’s filmography.

Javier Bardem plays the charismatic Paco, a ladies man who will never love his devoted, no-holds-barred wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) as much as Laura. Inheriting her family’s estate allowed him to turn the surrounding land into a local vineyard. Dozens of field workers rely upon Paco for continued employment, a status that could be jeopardized should Paco sell his shares to pay Irene’s ransom. Paco is one of Bardem’s more passive roles in that he’s not getting within inches of someone’s face to intimidate them with soft-spoken threats. Bardem as Paco radiates confidence and neighborly resourcefulness. He’s the closest thing the town has to a corporate leader, and thus wields an inordinate amount of influence despite humble beginnings.

The typically ponderous and layered drama that defines a Farhadi screenplay is absent in “Everybody Knows.” There are flashes of insight when it comes to culture, religion, class and the manifested evil of family secrecy, but Farhadi shirks exploration in favor of the convention. Certainly not the worst opener for the Cannes Film Festival, this newest film from the esteemed auteur is a misstep of pedestrian value.

“Everybody Knows” is distributed by Focus Features and will be released in theaters on February 8th, 2019

GRADE: (★★½)

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