Intricately layered with concerns of fidelity, debt, and class consciousness, Everybody Knows is as involving and suspenseful as any of the films that Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has made, if also quite a bit similar in terms of its themes and dramaturgy. Set in a small Spanish village somewhere outside Madrid, it at least affords Farhadi the opportunity to engage with a more socially open and vivacious milieu than his films set in Iran typically allow. Everybody Knows also movingly undercuts its buoyant tone with the introduction of a sudden big conflict that serves to reduce all of the film’s relational dynamics to a sustained simmer of blame, fear, and distrust.
The film’s emotional fulcrum is an often gossiped about former love affair between a working-class farmer, Paco (Javier Bardem), and a daughter of privilege, Laura (Penélope Cruz), whose family saw their fortune frittered away by the recklessness of an alcoholic patriarch. Laura travels from Buenos Aires with her children to celebrate the marriage of her younger sister, Ana (Inma Cuesta). The title of Farhadi’s film is a double entendre that both wryly refers to the ubiquity of small-town secrets like Paco and Laura’s romance and sardonically comments on the growing awareness of a mystery that gradually implicates a dense web of family members and family friends.
Farhadi allows the various details of his characters’ shared histories to trickle out organically, building to a series of mini-reveals that reshape the plot and further intensify the paranoia roiling at the film’s center. But eventually, the director falls back on the expository dialogue and dubious perspectival shifts that he frequently resorts to as a means of wrapping up knotty narratives. And that seems a particular shame here, since it’s the almost Caché-like obliqueness of Everybody Knows that keeps it as tantalizing as it is for so long.
But even once Farhadi dispels his screenplay’s ambiguities, the film emerges as a moderately more subdued version of a very familiar dramatic thriller, the director’s craft is often striking. The spatial dynamics between characters within their own homes, and within each other’s homes, speak to a tenuousness of class and social order within this community; characters are frequently shot lingering in open doorways, an expression of the economic uncertainties that hang around them, threatening to spirit away their status and their place in the world. Farhadi’s editing, too, is prone to cutting on action—character getting into or out of cars, walking through hallways, or lying in bed—as if to erode the sense of class borders set up by his film’s deliberate opening montage, and level hierarchies through a shared experience of crisis.
Farhadi’s writing hasn’t improved at the pace of his filmmaking, as too much of Everybody Knows telegraphs a mechanical, deterministic logic that negates the film’s more emotionally combustible energy. Both Bardem and Cruz attempt to delve into the messy, unresolved feelings that exist between their characters, but Farhadi’s plot—revolving around a kidnapping and ransom sum—tends to limit the depths of that engagement by propelling Paco and Laura manically to the next revelation and interfamily conflict.
The result rests a bit awkwardly between an emotionally complex melodrama and a shallow genre film, a space that Farhadi often seems to find himself occupying, and not always to his films’ detriment. What seems to be at the root of the dissonance, though, is a lack of self-awareness. Several sequences in Everybody Knows lay out thematic interests with leaden obviousness, including two separate verbalizations on the importance of “time” and the presence of an actual clock tower. The opening credits sequence depicts literal grinding gears, and while a charitable read might say this is Farhadi poking fun at his film’s immaculate efficiency, Everybody Knows seems too self-serious and earnest to recognize its own rote symbolism.