Everybody knows. It’s not just a title. It’s a promise. It’s a threat. It’s a bombshell. In a cozy, sun-dappled village outside Madrid, everybody knows Laura (Penélope Cruz) and Paco (Javier Bardem) were childhood sweethearts. Everybody knows their break-up was brutal and strange, with her leaving for Argentina while leaving Paco her share of her family’s land. Everybody knows Laura’s husband is wealthy and too busy to join her at her sister’s wedding. But when her happy homecoming is derailed by a shocking abduction, nobody knows who might be to blame. In this time of impossible despair, Laura and Paco become uneasy allies in this treacherous terrain of ransom, resentments, distrust, and deeply buried family secrets.
Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi has long been heralded for his nuanced family dramas that play like mysteries. Rather than rousing introductions that setup stereotypes or flashy monologues packed with exposition, Farhadi gently welcomes us into the worlds of his characters. Their connections are suggested through conversation, gesture, and chemistry. Their complicated pasts not unfurled in convenient flashbacks, but pieced together by subtler clues. A snatch of admission here, sweethearts’ initials chiseled in a wall there. In his Oscar-nominated A Separation, Farhadi took this detective device to a marvelous height, centering the film’s key conflict around something that happens off-camera. Who is to blame is in the eye of the beholder who beheld nothing. And then he left us with a final shot that is remarkably ambiguous, daring audiences to play detective with this unseen resolution. I’ve marveled at Farhadi’s bravely subtle storytelling, which shows an incredible trust in its audience. Regrettably, something is lost in his pacing and plotting when the life of a teen girl hangs in the balance.
Everybody Knows (also known as Todos lo saben) is generous as it sets up Laura, her family and friends. There are warm conversations, awkward revelations, and whispered realizations as she catches up on what’s gone down while she’s been away. Her father is older, frailer, and growing bitter. Her sister is alive with excitement for over her impending nuptials. Her grown niece has a beautiful baby daughter, but is heartbroken and on the brink of divorce. Laura’s own free-spirited daughter,Irene (Carla Campra), blithely zips around back roads with a swiftly chosen beau. Meanwhile, Paco overseas his thriving vineyard and cuddles his wife, and Laura makes excuses for her husband’s absence. But as soon as the two share a frame, we know they were once lovers. Cruz and Bardem’s chemistry crackles. Even as they joke over reckless youth and bird poo, there’s no denying Laura and Paco’s connection. Yet Farhadi takes his time confirming their past romance. Sadly, the film’s biggest reveals are as telegraphed yet drawn out as this minor one.
In the midst of the wedding reception, Laura’s daughter is snatched from the family home. Threatening text messages terrorize the panicked mother and warn her not to go to the police, lest Irene be killed. The abduction is discovered quickly, yet the hours stretch on and on as we wait for progress in solving this mystery. And the pacing is brutally slow. Prejudice and class conflict come into play as Paco plays amateur sleuth. But Farhadi doesn’t seem all that interested in the investigation. There’s no definitive list of suspects to be chiseled down. There are few insert shots of potential clues, because the mystery isn’t really what Everybody Knows is about. It’s about Paco and Laura’s romantic and unresolved past. Farhadi is far more interested in how this horrific scenario impacts his heroes than he is on the whodunit. A weeping Cruz and harrowed Bardem are given scene after scene of drama, while the reveal of the culprits feels almost like an afterthought. It is a compelling idea to focus on the emotional stakes of such a story over the life-and-death ones. But even keeping the kidnapped victim off-camera can’t stop us from considering her. In this case, out of sight does not mean out of mind. Which makes Farhadi’s signature slow pacing and focus on interpersonal conflict feel more irksome than enveloping.
Where is that vibrant girl who raced around on a motorbike and rode a church bell’s rope like it was a bucking bronco? As her mother keens, her family squabbles, and Paco risks all to appease the abductors, my mind kept wandering back to unseen Irene. Would she survive? Would her family’s efforts all be for naught? What kind of family might she return to after all these secrets have been so ruthlessly unearthed? But Farhadi has never been a filmmaker interested in giving his audience easy answers. I admire that. Still, he makes missteps. The genre expectations of an abduction-thriller work against him here, making for a film that feels out of balance and a bit boring.
Everybody Knows opens February 8.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com