The mixture of plot twists and moral shading, the focus on flawed characters and irresolvable pasts: Fans of writer-director Asghar Farhadi have come to cherish these trademark elements in his films. But when you become known for your topsy-turvy stories—for intimate dramas often embedded with startling surprises—the challenge becomes trying to outdo your previous narrative shockers (which risks pushing your movies further and further into implausibility) or simply repeating yourself (which risks becoming known as a dramatist of diminishing returns). Everybody Knows wrestles with this dilemma, ultimately successfully, while perhaps acknowledging that the two-time Oscar-winner can’t knock us off balance the way he once did. The question going forward is how he’ll compensate for our familiarity with his craft.
Everybody Knows is the Iranian filmmaker’s first work in Spanish. It stars Penelope Cruz as Laura, a wife and mother who returns to the village where she grew up after years of living in Argentina with her husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darin). The reason for the reunion is her sister’s wedding, which brings joy but also anxiety for Laura. While she’s happy to see her family after being gone for so long, there’s an overriding tension: Why has she been so absent? Also making things complicated is that this is the first time in a decade that she’s seen Paco (Javier Bardem), who owns a vineyard and was once Laura’s lover. But that’s seemingly all in the past since he’s now happily married to Bea (Barbara Lennie).
Of course, anyone who’s seen a Farhadi film—including A Separation, The Past and The Salesman—knows that old lovers and complicated families don’t go quietly. Those ingredients are the basic building blocks of Farhadi’s dramas, and once Everybody Knows gets rolling, we raise our antennae, preparing for the shockwaves to come.
The wait isn’t long: During the festive wedding reception, Laura’s teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) takes ill, repairing to her bedroom to get some rest. Hours later, Laura goes to check on her, discovering the door locked. Even more alarming, when she breaks it down out of concern, she realizes Irene is gone. No one has seen her: Is it a prank? Or something more worrisome? Soon, a text message comes, alerting Laura to the fact that her daughter has been kidnapped—and that the criminals will kill the girl if anyone contacts the police. With Alejandro back in Buenos Aires, Laura will need to decide what to do. And because of their shared history—Paco and Laura, we are told, basically grew up in the same house—Paco pitches in to help.
The previous Farhadi film that Everybody Knows most resembles is probably About Elly, his 2009 drama about a group of friends and the mysterious disappearance of one of them, which opened the door to plenty of speculation, accusations and buried resentments. Everybody Knows becomes a hunt for Irene, but like Elly in About Elly, she serves as a phantom—a vessel by which the rest of the characters can tear each other (and themselves) apart. Soon, arguments over what to do about this kidnapping unearth old emotional wounds. Did Paco and Laura really end things as amicably as they thought? What’s the real reason Alejandro didn’t accompany his wife to the wedding? And could Irene’s abduction actually be some elaborate hoax? And if so, who’s behind it?
Many have noted the Agatha Christie-like tenor of Everybody Knows, which presents us with a vast canvas of characters who may or may not have information regarding the kidnapping. But there’s no Hercule Poirot on hand to brilliantly dissect the clues—instead, there’s only Laura, her anxious husband and the tormented Paco, who takes Irene’s disappearance surprisingly personally. (Unfortunately for Paco, his wife notices, growing increasingly suspicious of the man she thought she knew.)
It would be bad form to reveal any other narrative bombshells, but in some ways the specific surprises don’t quite matter because, frankly, we know they’ll land in one form or another. Everybody Knows echoes some of the same interpersonal betrayals and ironic reversals found in Farhadi’s earlier films—he’s not so much reinventing himself as he is reshuffling the deck. The title deftly hints at the waves of guilt, fear and shame that course through the movie—everyone is either harboring a secret or nursing a grudge—and Farhadi remains excellent at showing how easily family units can splinter after years of relative peacetime. But he can’t quite floor us as he once did—we’ve been braced to expect the unexpected from him. So when it comes, we’re ahead of him, no longer left stunned as we were years ago with his movies.
Amidst a superb cast, Bardem and Cruz are both strong playing characters who haven’t let go of the past—a familiar affliction in Farhadi’s films. Which is maybe why Lennie is Everybody Knows’ true knockout. Sexy and smart, Bea is a vital life force who’s captured Paco’s heart. But once Laura returns—and Irene goes missing—she starts to understand that there are whole lifetimes of her husband’s existence that she’s never fully appreciated. Her tragedy may be that, suddenly, it could be too late to do anything about it, and Lennie displays the flurry of anger, sadness and panic that accompany such a profound test of her marriage. As Farhadi skillfully moves his protagonists around the chessboard, only Lennie feels fully untethered, her wild card of a character refusing to be reined in by her husband—or even Farhadi’s narrative maneuvering.
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Writer: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin, Eduard Fernandez, Barbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Carla Campra
Release Date: Screening in competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.