At the center of director Asghar Farhadi’s stories is the motif of domestic social relations. Like the best of melodramas, this motif exaggerates certain narrative events and reactions to emotionally provoke the audience and push for meaningful social commentary. Everybody Knows embraces this format with a strong build-up but falters in tying all the pieces together.
There’s a definite L’Adventura vibe to Everybody Knows where the conflict deepens our understanding of characters rather than following their pursuit of a goal. In this case, a family wedding leads to a whodunit mystery where the actual mystery takes a backseat to the secrets revealed in its aftermath. At first glance, the event is a happy occasion, with Laura (Penelope Cruz) and her two kids journeying back to Spain for her sister Ana’s big day. Her husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), however, cannot join them, as he must remain in Argentina for work.
Upon arriving, Laura reunites not only with friends and family but also with her old flame, Paco (Javier Bardem), a winemaker who owns a vineyard and estate within the region. Later, the land is revealed to have been owned by Laura’s father, given to Paco through an arrangement between him and Laura that the latter’s family- likely due to the former’s social class- perceive as a dirty deal. At first, character dynamics feel lighthearted and cheerful, as most wedding ceremonies should.
Then, as the party guests disperse, Laura’s daughter Irene (Carla Campra) goes missing. Her room is locked from the inside, photos alluding to a previous kidnapping are found on her bed, and a ransom note is texted to Laura’s phone. The culprit’s identity is a mystery no one can figure out but, in Farhadi’s eyes, that question is not the point. What matters is how each new revelation brings forth a new conflict between family members.
As it turns out, everyone may or may not have a motive behind this kidnapping. Or, at the very least, every character thinks someone else in the room holds enough of a grudge to instigate a kidnapping. Laura’s aging father (Ramón Barea) cannot let go of his resentment for Paco and the changing times, yearning for the period before he foolishly gambled most of the family’s land away. Alejandro’s reemergence into the narrative highlights his past business failures and his dependence on God for answers instead of actively partaking in the search for his daughter. And Paco’s wife, Bea, suspects the entire mystery and ransom to be a conspiracy designed to make her husband relinquish his financial claim on the estate. Truthfully, it could be anyone.
This focus on collapsing relationships and grudges is probably why, when the kidnapper is finally revealed, the revelation feels hollow. For over an hour and a half, Farhadi treated this plot point as little more than a MacGuffin, developing individual grudges that actually have little to no importance for the narrative. I guess he assumed the viewer would still desire an answer but what we get just “happens” with little build-up to give the reveal weight. It’s not open-ended but it’s not tying up loose ends either until the final moments, settling for a mid-ground that isn’t quite resolute or fulfilling.
Personally, Everybody Knows is at its best exploring how hidden feelings of class bias cripple the characters’ abilities to solve a problem. Much of its success can be attributed to Bardem and Cruz with both actors expressing various reactionary forms of grief at their overarching predicament. Cruz, as Laura, succeeds at playing a mother resisting the urge to be distraught 24/7 but her emotional turmoil feels raw and unruly. In comparison, Bardem is more subdued in his grief, torn between the life he made for himself and his feelings for a past romance that slipped away decades ago. Personally, I found Bardem’s story the more compelling of the two as you see him grapple with the consequences of giving up everything to aid someone he isn’t obliged to help. Or maybe he is?
Without spoiling too much, the past Laura and Paco thought they buried comes back to haunt them in more ways than one. The film’s title- Everybody Knows– is uttered twice by characters as if to suggest their past is never truly dead but eventually manifests as township gossip. It’s ironically fitting because the bulk of this film consists of dialogue conversations and group bickering that brings every potential resentment to the surface. The wedding might have been fun but by the time these characters go their separate ways, everyone knows how everyone truly feels about one another.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Everybody Knows is hardly Asghar Farhadi’s best film but, on its own terms, it remains a solid thriller. Despite predicting some plot points before they happened, the strong lead performances help keep these moments engaging and tense. The build-up is great; I just wish the mystery’s payoff was equally commendable.