'Everybody Knows' is a missing-person whodunit that’s not quite worth solving

The film suffers from too many suspects.

Teresa Isasi/Focus Features
Penélope Cruz (l.) and Javier Bardem star in 'Everybody Knows.'

The Iranian director Asghar Farhadi specializes in films about families in turmoil. His two best movies, “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” both of which won Oscars for best foreign-language film, were powerfully complex studies in ancestral discord. His latest film, “Everybody Knows,” is a lesser work, though no less roiled by generational strife. 

The movie opens as Laura (Penélope Cruz), who has been living in Argentina, returns to her small village in Spain for the wedding of her sister, bringing along her two children. She’s been living away for a long time, and the resentments and tensions greeting her return are palpable. The wedding is a joyous affair, though, with revelers carousing in the burnished landscape and drones circling above to photograph the ceremony. 

It takes a long time for anything bad to happen – I was beginning to wonder if anything ever would – but then panic sets in as Laura’s teenage daughter, Irene (Carla Campra), who has gone missing, appears to have been kidnapped. Laura begins receiving text messages demanding an outlandishly large ransom or else. The texts also assume a level of familiarity with Laura’s family and the community at large that suggests the crime is perhaps an inside job. 

Farhadi introduces so many characters that just keeping the family tree straight is a full-time job. He’s modeled his movie on classic whodunits of the Agatha Christie variety, but the tone – sunbaked and malevolent – is quite different. He wants to create a mystery movie but with high art pretensions. It’s what he also attempted in the similar, and similarly unfulfilling, “About Elly.” (Both of these films draw on the missing-person existentialism of Antonioni’s great “L’Avventura.”)

Farhadi has made movies outside Iran before, but the Spanish setting for “Everybody Knows” isn’t a comfortable fit. Although he works into the mix a fair amount of class distinctions revolving around landowners and migrant workers, the results are generic. This story could be taking place anywhere. The universalism lacks flavor.

But some of the performances certainly have it. Javier Bardem’s Paco, a powerful presence even in repose, was once a lover of Laura’s and, though it’s never made quite clear how, rose from being a worker on her father’s estate to the owner of a large vineyard that once had been in Laura’s family. Laura and Paco still generate lots of heat together, which does not go unnoticed by Laura’s disconsolate husband (Ricardo Darín), who shows up midway, or by Paco’s spiky wife (Bárbara Lennie, who is startlingly good). There is, of course, a secret something between Laura and Paco, but for anybody who has been following the scorecard, the big reveal is unrevealing.

In a way, Farhadi is too much of an artist to bring off this missing-person scenario. A clever hack might have done better with all the clues and red herrings that are strewn about. (A close-up of someone’s muddy boots is so obvious that it might as well have been accompanied by a clang on the soundtrack.) A hack might also have judiciously pruned the cast of characters. There are so many crime suspects that after a while I lost interest in piecing together the puzzle. 

Even the best of Farhadi’s movies are overlong, but there was a complexity to them and an understanding of human anguish that kept me watching. As a piece of storytelling, “Everybody Knows” covers a vast expanse of human experience, but it doesn’t dive very deep. Grade: B- (Rated R for some language.)

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