Whether we’d like to admit it or not, money is the hidden force guiding most of our lives. Money largely determines where we live, what we spend most of our days doing, and even what we do within the brief stretches when we’re not actively laboring to acquire more of it. Money is also the unspoken and all-encompassing enemy of Asghar Farhadi‘s Everybody Knows, the Iranian director’s latest film that opened the 71st Cannes Film Festival back in May of 2018. Everybody Knows, a dense telenovela-esque melodrama dropped into the premise of a Taken movie, is first a rarely thrilling thriller centered around a kidnapping, second an intriguing examination of the ways wealth and the past inform the present.
We enter the world of Farhadi’s film through the lives of its two principal characters played by Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem. They are estranged lovers with a long history together- Paco (Bardem) was a servant to Laura’s (Cruz) family, but changed his fortunes by transforming a worthless piece of land sold to him by Laura (at a low price he could afford) into a thriving vineyard. They reunite years later at a wedding, and the deep-rooted baggage of their romantic and financial entanglements alike is thrown into the stressful spotlight after Laura’s daughter Irene (Carla Campra) is kidnapped.
From there the film transpires mostly like a standard kidnapping thriller. A high ransom is announced, and the family is trapped in the dilemma of whether to inform the police- risking Irene’s life- or find a way to pay the ransom. None of them has the required 300,000 euros lying around, but Paco has his profitable vineyard, and Laura’s family increasingly expresses a generous degree of entitlement over the land. It’s here, in this underlying narrative of new wealth versus old, where the real meat resides in Everybody Knows. Unfortunately for the overall quality of the film, such substance is admittedly sparse.
Paco is predictably reluctant to sell his share of the vineyard to pay the ransom, but finds himself in the unpleasant chokehold of being the only one financially capable of affording the ransom and potentially saving Irene’s life. To make matters worse, he might have a greater stake in the Irene’s safety than he previously knew, and Laura’s father- the aging patriarch of the family- perceives him to be in their collective debt for his entire livelihood. Whether Paco legitimately owes them is of little importance. The mere fact that he rose to become a profitable business owner because of their capital will always be a point of resentment, and such a permanent debt is sensed by both Paco and his wife. After all, it’s never been a secret that the established wealthy loathe their self-made counterparts, and such deep-rooted animosity is only exacerbated by the uniquely uncomfortable situation he finds himself in.
There’s also a hint of psychological character drama brewing under the surface, but any grander depth for any of the characters is brushed aside in favor of the film’s more melodramatic plot beats. Indeed, Farhadi paints each character with strokes so broad that one could be forgiven for leaving the film not knowing a single concrete thing about them. The minute amounts of characterization actually afforded by the script are more a side effect of its abundance of conversation than any apparent effort on the part of Farhadi to give his players believable life. While to the vast majority of films this would be a crippling blow, the intrigue of the plot- specifically the recognizable themes longing to burst free- mostly prop up the failings of these paper-thin characters. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the film has the likes of Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz on board; while I wasn’t particularly sold on their characters as believable people, they were nonetheless pleasant and engaging to watch for two hours.
Everybody Knows is ultimately far more interesting when it peers inquisitively on the class dynamics of its narrative than when it attempts to be thrilling in the vein of something like Prisoners or Taken. The film may be a thriller in name, but it contains very little in the way of legitimate tension or intrigue. You won’t exactly be biting your nails or leaning forward in your seat by a teary-eyed Penélope Cruz receiving threatening text messages from her daughter’s captors, no matter how believable a job she does. I wasn’t even curious about who the kidnappers were, and indeed the film’s eventual answer to its supposedly central mystery is even more belabored than if it had been left ambiguous. There already exist an abundance of films that handle the terrifying unknown of abduction with finesse and mystery. This is not such a film, nor does it even feel like it’s trying to be. As it stands, Everybody Knows is an entertaining enough melodrama with two solid actors at the helm. It’s a shame it doesn’t take more time to meaningfully explore the few questions it does raise.