Kinds of Kindness (2024)

Kinds of Kindness Review

Kinds of Kindness

Release date: June 21, 2024 (USA)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Distributed by: Searchlight Pictures
Budget: $15 million
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Music by: Jerskin Fendrix

SPOILER WARNING: The following critique includes minor spoilers.

In the first story, a subordinate office employee allows his boss to determine everything from what he puts on to whom he marries. Then, in the next installment, the same performer (Jesse Plemons) takes on another character as a police officer mourning his wife’s disappearance; so when she resurfaces (as Emma Stone), it is with little enthusiasm that he receives her attempt to dominate him in bed. Finally, a woman (also Stone) leaves her husband to follow a cult leader (Willem Dafoe) who has instructed her to seek out an elusive faith healer.

“Kinds of Kindness” is three times stranger than anything Yorgos Lanthimos key member of Greece’s Weird Wave has done before. Following up box-office and awards successes “The Favourite” and “Poor Things” (both boisterous literary adaptations scripted by Tony McNamara), the pitiless surrealist performs something of a hard reset, reuniting with “Dogtooth” co-writer Efthimis Filippou for several deadpan parodies of control and consent: in the corporate world, in matrimony, in religion — all arenas where humans willingly cede their power to others. Set in a screwy parallel present ruled by dogs and where death can be bargained over, this tripartite film-of-films unfolds over three hours or so, allowing Lanthimos one last victory lap with an American indie studio’s bigger resources at his disposal, plus an absolute dream cast.

“Kinds of Kindness” will probably be most effective if you know as little about it going in as possible though you’ll likely want to talk or think about it afterward. It’s such an enigmatic concoction that you could imagine it delighting people even if they couldn’t make head or tail of it; structured so that it plays like a nihilist “Twilight Zone” knockoff binge-watched over three consecutive nights, rather than something like “Magnolia,” which might have better supported the kind of connection-making between chapters that this film appears indifferent to. In any case, discomfort is Lanthimos’ currency, and he trusts his audience enough to take as much or little of his provocation as they please.

Not even a decade ago, the director made his English-language debut with “The Lobster,” introducing American audiences who don’t do subtitles to his dark and somewhat deranged brand of satire. It was only a modest success in the U.S., but that A24-acquired curio was an early volley in what I’ve come to think of as the bizart-house-movie trend whereby young people who feel they’ve seen everything are gravitating toward indie films with unpredictable (and often wildly outrageous) elements: Sometimes just one shocking scene will do; sometimes the whole dang thing is cuckoo-bananas. It’s about surprise for this generation.

That may be the only expectation that Lanthimos meets throughout “Kinds of Kindness”: At no point can anyone watching it pretend for even a second that they know what’s going to happen next. This long, scaldingly original film mesmerizes as much as it infuriates; its illogic is narratively conventional while serving up an absurdist caricature of modern life. But it’s never boring; still, Lanthimos’ outré sensibility requires a certain kind of patience (not to mention wariness) on our part, many viewers coming to see Plemons and Stone stretch beyond their usual comfort zones, only to have those same limits tested in themselves.

Stone took some time to appear in the director’s last two films, so during this span audiences work out that Plemons is playing a pathetic corporate flunky named Robert who does whatever his boss Raymond (Dafoe) says, even if it means bashing his new Bronco into a stranger’s car. In return, Raymond rewards Robert with unique sports memorabilia and a lavish modern home the one he shares with his wife, Sarah (Hong Chau). For years, Robert has gone along with the arrangement, but this is too much; he can’t commit manslaughter on Raymond’s behalf. Like most of the movie, it’s funnier on second viewing: After spiraling out of control and crawling back to his boss. What are these various principals meant to represent? Is Raymond every boss who ever was, whose expectations shape so much of how we behave at work in America? Could he be a religious leader or other figure of authority to whom followers cede their free will? Maybe even a demanding film director? The answer is all of them and none at all, as Lanthimos insists we make what we will of it.

Unlike “Dogtooth” (a fairly straightforward critique of socialization) or “The Lobster” (romantic coupling), the themes are less clearly defined here; the allegory is blurrier over-all. Technically kindness is given without expectation of reward; those three vignettes are about characters going to great lengths to prove their love. The first chapter and second share a fair amount of overlap Plemons now plays Daniel, a police officer who hasn’t been himself since his wife Liz (Stone) went missing and when she miraculously returns he becomes convinced that she isn’t her. Because Lanthimos makes the rules here, there’s no way for us to know whether Daniel is acting rationally or not; certainly his mind games macabre little tests of Liz’s devotion would be cruel in the real world.

But when we don’t know how gravity works in this universe, how to interpret what he’s doing? Again, funnier on the second go-round, when you’re over being shocked. Stone takes center stage in the final chapter, roaring onto screen in an Otter Pop-purple Dodge Challenger. Her character Emily is a maniac behind the wheel who otherwise toes the line of a guru named Omi (a spaced-out Dafoe), who has asked her and partner Andrew (Plemons, now mustached) to track down someone with special powers. Omi insists on purity; his disciples are not allowed to drink or expose themselves to “contaminating fluids.” He and his spiritual partner Aka (Chau) reward their faith with tantric attention, nourishing them with their tears … or excommunicating them when they stray. As in Chapter One: It hurts to be excluded; that’s how cults work.

No offense was meant to any of the actors who strip in this movie, but Lanthimos makes sex (and death) a joke. It’s one way to deflate the importance we attach to them or to anything else, for that matter: abortion, rape, suicide. Sometimes his irreverence is disarming, other times it’s laugh-out-loud funny. By the end we can’t tell whether he wants to amuse us, alarm us or enlighten us maybe all three at once. There is an off-kilter precision to the whole enterprise enhanced by Jerskin Fendrix’s use of discordant pianos and stress-inducing choirs on the “Poor Things” soundtrack; and DP Robbie Ryan pivots from the trick photography of his previous collaboration with Lanthimos on “Poor Things” to meticulous widescreen compositions centered on some of New Orleans’ least-scenic locations.

When he made “Dogtooth,” you may not have noticed how dry and affectless the Greek actors sounded in their dubbed English-language performances. Now that Lanthimos is directing in English himself, there’s no way around it: The cast underplay situations that would be wracked with emotion in real life, which is deeply unnerving. Plemons does not or at least not entirely. He suggests nothing less than a young Philip Seymour Hoffman here, emotionally committed where most of his blank-faced co-stars are merely committed-committed. With four parts (including twins), Margaret Qualley has more to do here than she did in her last outing with Lanthimos (“Poor Things”), while Mamoudou Athie (Qualley’s husband in chapter two) feels underused.

Lanthimos and longtime editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis strike a rhythm quite unlike other filmmakers’, generating tension less from suspense than surprise. Each segment ends abruptly on a Saki-esque twist before starting over again; while certain themes carry over, the only real continuity is the title character of each chapter, R.M.F. (Yorgos Stefanakos), whose shifting status helps indicate their order. If you wish to see him eat a sandwich, stick around through the end credits. If you want to get the full darkly comic effect, do yourself a favor: Buckle up and take another ride.

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