If there’s one takeaway from Everybody Knows, it’s that Asghar Farhadi has solidified himself as one of the greatest directors working today. This was probably obvious to anyone who saw A Separation1 or The Salesman—his two Best Foreign Language Film winners—but sometimes a filmmaker’s lesser entries prove this more than their masterpieces. Everybody Knows definitely isn’t in the same league as those two films, but Farhadi’s film is almost always gripping even in the face of occasionally predictable writing that trips over the film’s bigger moments.
Setting his film in Europe similarly to 2013’s The Past, Farhadi’s new film begins as a fairly routine Spanish family drama. The wedding of her sister brings Laura (Penélope Cruz) back home to Spain with her two children after moving to Argentina with her husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín)—who conspicuously misses the trip. Upon her return, she reunites with Paco (Javier Bardem), the son of the family’s housekeeper and her former lover who now owns Laura’s family’s vineyard. During the wedding, however, one of Laura’s children is abducted and held for ransom. This leaves Laura devastated and Paco determined to do whatever he can to save the missing girl, all while revealing the family’s deep dark secrets.
It’s a fairly straightforward premise, and the twists are almost exactly what you’d expect, but the film is engaging throughout it’s 132 minute runtime. In part this is because Cruz, Bardem, and Darín are a phenomenal trio to build a film around. Their performances provide the foundation for the film, and their performances are captivating to watch, particularly Cruz’s descent into mania and desperation as the hours and days begin passing. Darín likewise portrays Alejandro as a formerly broken man—he has been sober since the birth of the abducted daughter—barely keeping it together in the current circumstances. The film also utilizes Bardem’s unique intensity and unrivaled charm to great effect, making full use of Bardem’s talents.
But it’s Farhadi’s personal direction that really keeps Everybody Knows afloat despite the somewhat cliche script. It’s essentially a mystery thriller, and Farhadi’s almost unparalleled in his ability to depict interpersonal tension. Each scene, where almost every character’s motivations are constantly under the microscope, is filled to the brim with an anxious unease. The underlying mysteries, particularly the mid-film reveal, are mostly rote, but the journey to get to there is thrilling to witness. The revelations might not be, y’know, revelatory, but it’s never boring to watch a master director work.
It makes sense to be a bit disappointed by Everybody Knows. When a director makes something as incredible as A Separation and shows some consistent talent with his initial follow-ups, there’s a sense that anything less than that is a failure. But the key to the all-time greats like Spielberg and Scorsese is that even their lesser works are almost always entertaining. No one writes and directs character dynamics like Farhadi, and whatever Everybody Knows might fail at in terms of big picture storytelling, the “in the moment” scenes between the actors demonstrates the man’s work at its finest.