There’s a twist that arrives an hour into “Everybody Knows” that wouldn’t feel out of place in a telenovela. However, under the guidance of Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, it’s just another piece of a beguiling puzzle. As with all the riveting dramas he’s produced over the past decade — “A Separation,” “The Past,” and “The Salesman” — Farhadi’s first Spanish-language feature explores fissures of family bonds as they threaten to fall apart. New cracks keep appearing in unexpected places, some more resonant than others, but they’re mere vessels for a fascinating deep-dive into the perils of hidden information.
Upping the ante with the explosive star power of Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz as his leads, Farhadi has also found the most accessible genre for his heady storytelling to date — the suspenseful mold of a kidnapping thriller. As usual, Farhadi builds his dilemma around a sudden inciting incident: Shortly after Laura (Cruz) arrives from Argentina to visit to her family at their Spanish estate for a wedding, her teen daughter Irene (Carla Campra) vanishes from her room in the dead of night. That leaves a frantic Laura at the mercy of Paco (Bardem), who oversees the family vineyard and was romantically involved with Laura ages ago. Local incidents suggest they can’t go to the police, lest the kidnappers kill Irene right away — and they’re not equipped to shell out any ransom, at least not in the immediate future. As the ensemble of relatives linger in the estate, Farhadi pushes the material into Agatha Christie territory — everyone’s a suspect, and everyone suspects someone else.
It’s a taut setup that risks veering into soapy territory, but Farhadi reveals just enough involving details to pause at individual moments and rest on more intimate observations. Within the confines of this familiar scenario, the filmmaker mines remarkable observations about the impact of class and status under dire circumstances. Initially, Paco suspects the workers on his vineyard, and there’s a queasy resonance to the silent moments when he locks eyes with the men in the field. Bardem’s penchant for showboating is crystalized by the paradoxical emotions on his face. But just as that road leads to one possibility, another strand enters the narrative from a different direction, with the arrival of Laura’s husband Alejandro (a disheveled Ricardo Darin, superb as usual). Jobless and downtrodden, he has reasons for arriving so late to the party. You won’t find spoilers here, but needless to say, he had some good reasons.
As new information about former relationships trickle out, “Everybody Knows” becomes less invested in whether this dysfunctional unit can rescue the missing girl than why someone would think to take her in the first place. While Farhadi may spoil the subtlety of his material by revealing a few too many details by the third act, none of the revelations in “Everybody Knows” matter as much as the way they leave these characters in conflicted states. Farhadi unleashes his star power: Cruz spends the bulk of the movie widening her eyes and tearing up in terror, though she scores one compelling monologue that helps soothe the transition into more complicated narrative territory without destroying the entire enterprise. However, the movie belongs to Bardem, who turns Paco into a typical Farhadian anti-hero driven by masculine hubris to save the day even as he risks destroying himself in the process.
Farhadi’s screenplay never sits still. He sketches out details from different generations of this once-wealthy household, including Laura’s crude father Antonio (Ramón Barea), who forces some latent tensions between other figures to the surface, and various younger relatives who lurk in the corners. As viewers, we’re forced to play along with the rest of the cast, and contemplate the possibilities as nuggets of new information arise, and there’s a twisted kick to the challenge of attempting to second-guess each moment.
There’s a theatrical quality to Farhadi’s writing that sometimes outpaces his direction, but he’s still a filmmaker, and complicates his manipulative approach with a striking visual sense that always makes it clear he has more on his mind than the resolution. From the very first images of a dusty clocktower with a cracked pane, where pigeons fly in and out of its shadowy interior, the movie confronts the ways that the intricate dynamics of decades-old behavior can inform the present. That alone may not be a sophisticated observation, but Farhadi keeps turning those gears in search of deeper possibilities. Once again, he has delivered a provocative meditation on the dynamics of communication. Knowledge is power, but in “Everybody Knows,” nobody’s quite certain about the whole truth.
“Everybody Knows” premiered as the opening night selection at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.