Whether one is an admirer or a detractor of Asghar Farhadi’s films, one thing that stands out about his features is the sheer density of his writing and his signature twists. Whether one consistently loves his writing for this technique or whether one has tired of it tends to determine how much they will appreciate each new film. In Everybody Knows, Farhadi stays true to his sensibility and style with another elaborately written melodrama that once again studies how a major event affects a family and sends ripples that expose the secrets they have been keeping from each other.
In many families, reunions that draw all the members to one place happen only for major milestones like weddings and funerals. The central ensemble of Everybody Knows immediately appears to be this type of clan, as Laura (Penélope Cruz) and her children return to Spain for the first time in three years, for a family wedding, leaving her husband behind in Argentina. On the surface, though it is not as if they get together every day, they do show tenderness and warmth for each other, until they turn around to express behind each other’s backs their incredulity over how much everyone has changed. While the wedding unfolds, Irene and her new crush Felipe disappear to the church’s bell tower, and discover etchings of initials, including an “L” and a “P,” which Felipe explains stand for “Laura” and “Paco” (Javier Bardem, as a winemaker who works on land that once belonged to Laura). Apparently these two were once lovers: something that “everybody knows.” At the reception, while everyone else is lively and celebratory, Irene suddenly becomes tired, and is guided to her bed. Shortly after Irene leaves the festivities, the electricity suddenly cuts out. When power is restored, Laura goes to check on Irene, only to find that the door is locked. Once they force entry, they discover that Irene has been kidnapped.
During the remainder of the first hour, despite cryptic text messages from anonymous telephone numbers (whose SIM cards appear to be destroyed after every text) warning the family that Irene’s safety relies on their decision not to get the police involved, hardly any clues surface. The absence of any concrete leads builds a sense of restlessness and ominous passage of time, and gives the family’s collective weary, racing imaginations ample opportunity to speculate about each other’s secrets and turn their suspicions towards their own kin and close friends. Some question why Alejandro could not make it to the wedding, if maybe this kidnapping is contrived, and if maybe he was involved (he has gone broke, and maybe this is an elaborate scheme to raise money under the guise of a staged ransom). Others raise an eyebrow as Laura’s former beau offers to sell the land he bought from her to raise money for Irene’s 300,000-Euro ransom, and they wonder if there are ulterior motives why he would go to this extreme. Typical of Farhadi, any time that a suspicion is voiced, there will always prove to be an endless cycle of explanations, rebuttals, and other twists (including one major revelation), as his plot continues to thicken.
Those familiar with the elaborate plotting of Asghar Farhadi will quickly identify many familiar motifs in Everybody Knows. Superficially, a woman’s mysterious disappearance evokes memories of About Elly, and the examination of the lies, secrets and ways that members of a family deceive each other is lifted straight from his first European feature, The Past. In The Past, the revelation of its family’s secrets and lies leads one to ruminate that deceit is a complex concept, and how different stakes in complicated situations bear different moral implications and consequences for those involved. Meanwhile, in Everybody Knows, his writing is as carefully conceived and frequently as compelling as ever, but the examination of this family’s secrets serves little more than laboriously hitting plot points without giving food for thought. This film is stripped of the cultural lens of his Iranian features or the philosophical questioning of The Past, elements that elevated them to a greatness missing in this one. Furthermore, Everybody Knows is the first of his films that glaringly recycles plot points, feels not as conceptually fresh as his previous efforts, and stages narrative twists that are even becoming predictable.
In his last few films, Farhadi has been teetering on the edge of writerly excess, and this is the first effort that even some of his most steadfast fans might decide finally crosses over that edge. Ultimately, loyalists will still be getting their money’s worth, because Everybody Knows offers another two hours’ pleasure from Farhadi’s clever and captivating scenarios, but detractors who have lost interest in his style are unlikely to be won back here. Farhadi has already produced so many great films, and after he won an Oscar for The Salesman, it might be simply that one has become so accustomed to his consistent delivery of excellence that when he finally shows us a film as generally good as this is, but with a little less to consider thematically, it feels more like a minor effort than it should.