'Everybody Knows' Review: Javier Bardem And Penélope Cruz Lead A Thrilling, If Impersonal, Kidnapping Drama [TIFF]

Iranian writer and director Asghar Farhadi is a true master of character motivation. He understands that when people talk, they are rarely telling the truth, instead offering a lie wrapped in equivocation. His filmography evinces a nearly single-minded focus on watching how quickly lives can unravel when the falsehoods once which they rest become exposed.

Everybody Knows, Farhadi's latest work, is the filmmaker distilled into an essence. The lie at the heart of the film, however, is of a different variety than his usual ones. The open secret makes for Farhadi's fiction of choice here. Everybody Knows could easily bear the subtitle "...but no one acknowledges." The film's characters are all aware of an unpleasant truth, one that they have all chosen to ignore, deny or dismiss.

Though this reality goes unacknowledged by the characters, its re-emergence becomes undeniable when Laura (Penélope Cruz) returns home from Argentina to her native Spain with daughter Irene in tow. Laura's very presence for her sister's wedding unsettles a delicate equilibrium with her relatives, as well as with Paco (Javier Bardem). The overseer of their vineyard, Paco is more than just an employee – he's a close friend with the familiarity like a member of the family. Yet while he is welcome among them, various spoken and unspoken cues remind Paco he is still not exactly one of them.

Farhadi takes his time, per usual, to weave his intricate web of characters. Before he can have them spill their guts on screen, he needs the audience to understand who they are and how they relate to each other. Everybody Knows involves a larger cast and thus takes a bit more time to introduce. The expository section, a staple of Farhadi's films, feels not only longer but also a little clunkier than normal. But right when the tediousness starts to set in, the wheels of Farhadi's plot start turning.

During the wedding, Irene goes missing, a disappearance soon revealed as a kidnapping. Her captors make the recovery effort difficult from the outset by threatening to kill the hostage if anyone tells the police. With an arm tied behind her back, Laura begins the search with help only from within the family – which ends up being apropos given that all signs point to the criminals having deep knowledge of the blood ties. The manner in which they taunt Laura and the extended family with clues about Irene's whereabouts suggests a coordinated effort to squeeze their pain points.

Everybody Knows Review

The kidnappers know that there is no greater leverage than threatening the disclosure of a tightly-guarded secret. Even by hinting at their knowledge without explicitly revealing it, Irene's captors put the family on high alert by forcing Laura and Paco's hand. The evasiveness exhibited by both individuals when a simple answer could put speculation to rest arouse the suspicion of their family members. With each maneuver in their detainment ratcheting up pressure on Laura, Irene's disappearance unearths long-buried resentments causing bad blood. Her absence allows for the re-airing of old grievances in regard to class, money, religiosity and fidelity. Everybody Knows exposes just how flimsy a foundation a lie makes, and it renders everything above it a house of cards.

Farhadi has made another film, 2013's The Past, outside his native Iran, but it had the safeguard of featuring characters of Iranian descent. Everybody Knows has no such ties to Farhadi's homeland – it is Spanish through and through. Yet other than to work with gifted performers like Cruz, Bardem and Argentinian cinema mainstay Ricardo Darín, the film has little reason to exist in Spain specifically. With no ties to Farhadi's own background, Everybody Knows cannot help but possess an aura of impersonality. It lacks the cultural specificity that made his prior films so indelible.

Plenty of directors have gone outside their comfort zones and created great films that examine other countries from an outsider's perspective. But, in general, these films start from the specific and build out to the universal. Farhadi seems to have started with a one-size-fits-all narrative, jet set to Spain and layered on details after. What results is something still as rigorously written and planned as Farhadi's other films, just lacking a certain organic quality that gives the drama an extra punch.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10