‘Everybody Knows’ masks disconnect between plot and theme with beautiful performances, cinematography

Everybody Knows

FilmScene — through April 18

Video still from ‘Everybody Knows.’

Everybody Knows (dir. Ashgar Farhadi) is a movie that haunts the odd space between better than expected and somehow disappointing. It is worth watching, especially in the theater, if only to delight in the masterful performances of Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. The film is shot well, and I remained engaged throughout the movie, although never was completely transported into or wholly absorbed by the story.

Thrillers are an interesting genre, building on conventions of noir detective fiction. They provide a particularly keen example of the way that plot and character relate within story construction, especially as a way of balancing narrative temporality: the extent stories focus on delving into the past, constructing tension in the present or building to a suspenseful future.

Video still from ‘Everybody Knows.’

Traditional detective stories plumb the past, weaving back through traces of causes and effects in order to arrive at a primal scene of truth — the thing that happened. This approach to a thriller often hinges on character, and often the truth (following a Freudian model) is sexual in nature. Think of Chinatown as an exemplar. Another approach to a thriller emphasizes the flattened horizontality of the present: The standout example of this lateral construction remains The Bourne Ultimatum, in which Matt Damon’s protagonist moves kinetically from one scene to the next. Overall, thrillers tend to blend asking, “What has happened?” with, “What will happen?” In action movies, the most superficial form of thriller, characters and plot give way to spectacle for the sake of spectacle alone. The emptiness of this approach is depicted pretty clearly in Babylon A.D., a movie without character or plot.

Everybody Knows does an interesting job of exchanging art house cinematography for big budget action spectacle sequences. This allows things to become beautiful, as they are framed rather than digitally rendered. Similarly, the performances (especially those of Bardem and Cruz, with strong support from Bárbara Lennie and Ricardo Darín) take the place of character. The construction of the story makes the relation between characters importantly difficult to discern, which makes it hard to care about what happens to any one of them. What is interesting, in other words, is the way in which acting, rather than CGI, obscures the emptiness of the characters and the lack of plot devices. The technical successes compensate greatly, but not totally, for the problems at the level of the story.

Another factor that provides an interesting interruption of traditional thriller structure is the movie’s insistence on thematic possibilities rather than plot devices as nodes on which to hang the story’s structure. The dialogue and cinematography work together well in this regard: Bardem’s Paco crushes grapes in his hand and states that time is the necessary ingredient for giving character to wine. A clock and a clock tower — especially as a historical ruin — play a significant role in the story. Questions of the past do arise and create some of the tension among the primary protagonists.

A second example of this sort of thematic rendering deals with labor: The camera frames shots of workers picking grapes, hanging bulbs. The question of who works a wedding — the strangers who are present at an intimate event — becomes important. It’s interesting, but these details ultimately become distracting. The movie hints at a different version of itself in which these factors have significance to what happens — but the questions of theme and story remain oddly disconnected, just as is true of the gap between character and performance.

Video still from ‘Everybody Knows.’

The closest the movie comes to having plot and theme intersect is the question of property, exploring what it means to own something — what it means for something to be proper to you. This exploration manages to integrate questions of land ownership and money alongside questions of paternity and the notion of what it means to be a
father. (If I were to rewatch this movie, which I don’t know that I will, I would contrast the four patriarchs depicted in terms of the strengths and weaknesses that they present.) The movie does a good job of depicting through visuals rather than dialogue how the men’s emphasis on action comes at the expense of understanding through perception: The women ultimately have more agency and power, in the background, than men do despite their proportion of screen time and plot emphasis.

I don’t regret having seen Everybody Knows, which in some ways is worth watching if only in order to experience its unique, idiosyncratic form of failing. A truly enjoyable movie allows an integration of character and performance into plot and theme, all of which culminate together. The fact that the mechanics of plot seem unmotivated by theme or character means that the movie never feels like it knows itself. However, it is a more interesting failure than the kind of thriller that moves from one CGI-based fight scene to the next, and in this case, it is one worth watching — but as a curiosity more than as a work of genius.

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