Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
– Leonard Cohen “Everybody Knows”
No Leonard Cohen songs arise in Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows, but virtually every word of the song echoes through the film. This riveting drama is a moral fable disguised as a potboiler as the two-time Oscar winning director of A Separation and The Salesman pulls the strings on a deceptively familiar premise. The plot is simple – girl goes missing and kidnappers ask for ransom – but the mystery is merely a catalyst for a nuanced critique of capitalism and class distinctions, and the awful pervasive hell they breed. Everybody knows that money generally does more harm than good.
The film, which was last year’s Cannes opener, brings the Iranian Farhadi’s flare for social realism to the Spanish picturesque countryside. The auteur lands Spain’s biggest stars, Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, as Laura and Paco, two former flames brought back together under the happiest of circumstances and, inevitably, the worst. Laura returns to her small hometown just outside of Madrid after years of living in Argentina and runs into Paco en route for her cousin’s wedding. Her teenage daughter, Irene (Carla Campra), and younger son, Diego (Iván Chavero), are along for the ride, although her husband is suspiciously absent. Young love is in the air, too, as Irene hits it with Paco’s nephew and one generation of lovers retraces the steps of another.
Everything goes merrily as Laura makes a well-received homecoming and draws interested glances from the gawking neighbours sipping vino on the terraces. (Apparently, her husband’s loaded.) Amid hugs, kisses, and tears, her family welcomes her. Paco seems especially warmed by her return and Laura receives far more attention than the bride does in Farhadi’s densely staged wedding.
Everybody Knows features an elongated wedding scene that recalls the captivating nuptials of in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter as tense exchanges mix with happy drunkenness and ominous bits of foreshadowing are just as plentiful as grains of rice. The dense, action-packed frames of the wedding party exploit the elaborate space of Laura’s family estate where every little nook seems to have a private celebration of its own. (There are many secondary and minor characters to keep track of as the pot slowly boils.) At the same time, Farhadi disrupts the traditional stuffiness of the estate with the power of innovative technology as drone footage, shot by one of the wedding’s videographers, occasionally interrupts the film as the camera surveys the party Big Brother style. (Although Farhadi gets a bit carried away with the drone in a “boys with toys” fashion.)
A tragic turn of events upends the gaiety of the evening, however, and Laura finds herself confronting the past while fighting to save her family. Here’s where the message of the Leonard Cohen song comes into play. Everybody Knows navigates a game with loaded dice and rich boy/poor boy dynamics. Paco naturally comes to Laura’s aid, but her family distrusts him despite knowing him since he was just a boy. Paco, see, was the son of their servant and the film reveals that Laura sold him land on the cheap when she moved to Argentina, a fact for which the family has never forgiven Paco despite his success cultivating the land as a successful vineyard. The past exchange, a mutually beneficial transaction by both Laura and Paco’s accounts, becomes the elephant in the room as the family tries to reconcile its need to rely on the former servant boy’s aid in order to save their own. These people are truly awful as they weigh the scales between money and family as the clock ticks down.
The film takes place over mere days, yet Farhadi is in hurry to move the whodunit along. Everybody Knows is a talky thriller that takes its time stirring the pot, but Farhadi keeps everything coolly a-simmer. Everything plays out in the re-opening of wounds between Laura and Paco, and when the performers are as great as Cruz and Bardem are, a film can take its time to arrive at its destination. Cruz and Bardem, long-time partners off screen, truly are one of the great screen couples of their generation. Their chemistry is consistently electric but with Everybody Knows they deliver something akin to an Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton (second marriage) coup as they draw upon the pain of lovers ripped apart. It’s fascinating to watch two people so clearly in love deny these affections within their characters. Feelings of distance, longing, and resentment collide in a storm of emotions. The film adds to the mix several top-notch supporting performances, most notably Argentine actor Ricardo Darín (The Secret in Their Eyes) as Laura’s husband, who turns up partway and helps expose the dog-eat-dog savagery of her family when he finally arrives.
It’s difficult to dig into Everybody Knows without going too far into spoiler territory, and the less one knows about it, the better. This is one of those movies in which lives are upended and fates are turned during the course of a single cup of a coffee. A mere conversation can be more tense and thrilling than a car chase at high speed, albeit if one has the patience for it. The film keeps audiences guessing as Laura and Paco dive into the mystery and confront the open secrets of a town that has spent generations marinating in grudges. The deeper they look into the village’s stories, the more Everybody Knows builds an indictment against generations of class struggles and social inequality that driven by the power of old money. Everybody knows that well has run dry.