Most great filmmakers stumble eventually, and they often do so in a particularly dispiriting way: attempting to rehash a previous triumph. Before winning two foreign-language Oscars (for A Separation and The Salesman), Iran’s Asghar Farhadi made a splash on the festival circuit with 2009’s About Elly, in which the title character’s unexplained disappearance during a seaside holiday creates tension and inspires recriminations among a group of friends who hardly know her. Farhadi’s latest effort, Everybody Knows (which begins a brief Oscar-qualifying run this week prior to opening wider in February), amounts to a glossier, more genre-driven variation on the same idea, relocated to Spain, and it’s the first of Farhadi’s films to feel a bit stale. Anyone who’s ever lost a significant amount of writing due to a computer crash and had to painstakingly reconstruct each sentence from memory will recognize the nagging sensation that, even when it’s working, nothing’s quite as elegant or as seemingly effortless as it was the first time.
The Elly equivalent here is 16-year-old Irene (Carla Campra), whose mother, Laura (Penélope Cruz), has taken the kids to her hometown, near Madrid, for her sister’s wedding. For a while, everything seems to be going chaotically fine, though some may wonder about an old pair of graffitied initials—“L” and “P”—once Laura greets an old friend, Paco (Javier Bardem). Even when the power goes out during the reception, everyone keeps partying… until nobody can find Irene. This disappearance, unlike Elly’s, doesn’t stay mysterious for long—kidnappers quickly contact Laura via text message, demanding a hefty ransom. Once again, though, Farhadi (who also wrote the screenplay, as usual) is primarily interested in examining the crisis’ debilitating effect on various relationships. Not only does Laura’s husband (Ricardo Darín), who’d stayed behind in Buenos Aires, suddenly show up, casting a suspicious eye on Paco, but it soon emerges that most of Laura’s family deeply resents Paco, who took advantage of their financial woes and bought a big chunk of their land, which he’s since turned into a successful vineyard. Even if they manage to get Irene back safe and sound, the psychic wounds reopened by her abduction may well never heal.
It’s admirably bold to tell a kidnapping story in which the crime is secondary almost to the point of being irrelevant. (When the culprits’ identities are finally revealed, it hardly seems to matter.) At the same time, though, knowing for certain that an innocent person’s life is in danger makes it somewhat difficult to care about petty jealousies and resentments. It’s as if The Big Chill’s characters were all involved in Taken, with particular sets of skills ranging from condescension to passive aggression. Cruz, Bardem, and Darín all do typically fine work, and Farhadi, making his first film with no connection to Iran whatsoever (The Past, though set in France, featured an Iranian character among its three leads), still seems very much on his own knotty, exacting turf. But Everybody Knows never quite makes the leap from engrossing to exciting. Even the story’s one big plot twist is obvious enough that many will guess it well in advance, and it doesn’t reverberate backward the way that long-buried secrets usually do in Farhadi’s work. Were this his feature debut, it’d look very promising. For those who’ve seen what he can do at full throttle, it feels like coasting.