Review: Kinds of Kindness

There is always at least one moment in every Yorgos Lanthimos movie when you realize where he’s going to go, what he’s going to make his characters do, and you’re afraid of it. He constructs his stories in such a way that the action in question is the only logical next step—but it’s a step that most films won’t take, where most filmmakers would pull their punch. Lanthimos loves that moment, lives for that moment. It is, I suspect, why he makes movies.

There are several of those moments in his latest, Kinds of Kindness, a trio of loosely-connected short stories (each running around an hour), with his cast playing different roles in each. Kudos to Lanthimos and co-scripter Efthimis Filippou for understanding that these aren’t feature-length ideas, though it must’ve been tempting to make them so. But that process would require considerable narrative stretching—by confining himself to these tight timeframes, he can work with admirable efficiency, parachuting in at the last possible second and airlifting out with equal expediency.

Moreover, resetting the picture twice allows him more opportunities for what seems a favorite aspect of storytelling: putting the viewer into an odd but uncertain situation, leaving us adrift with as little exposition as possible, and making us figure it out on our own. “What exactly is happening?” we’ll ask, over and over “What is his/her deal?” (Puzzling out the whos and whats are one of the pleasures of watching a Lanthimos picture, so skip the next couple of paragraphs if you want to preserve that.) 

The first story, “The Death of R.M.F.,” is a sledgehammer-subtle critique of conspicuous consumption, assuring us that the comfortably wealthy are also the most miserable, compromised people on the face of the earth. Jesse Plemons is an underling of Willem Dafoe’s elite businessman, who is so controlling that he dictates the younger man’s meals, dress, and frequency of intercourse with his wife (Hong Chau). His latest request, however, is where the line is drawn, to the boss’s chagrin; he insists that line is crossed, “if you don’t want to disappoint me. If you really love me.” It gets dark.

In the second story, “R.M.F is Flying,” Plemons plays an unstable cop whose marine biologist wife (Emma Stone) has gone missing, and when she is finally found, she returns acting… strangely. Based on her changes in behavior (and foot size), he decides she is an imposter, a replica that is “almost perfect—but not perfect enough.” It’s conspiracy thriller as pitch comedy, and then it gets dark. 

In the third story, “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich,” Stone is a member of a sex cult (there’s always a sex cult!) searching the country for a woman who, per their prophecies, can resurrect the dead. It’s all wickedly funny—Lanthimos has fun staging their bonkers rituals with utter, reverent solemnity, and Dafoe, who has been (for him) reserved in the earlier stories, really lets it rip in this one as the group’s Svengali—until it’s not, which is something of a guiding principle for the entire film. The director adroitly lets dread creep in to what seems a scene of earnest regret with the husband she left behind, deftly manipulating audience emotion and steering into a skid of emotional and psychological brutality.

The ensemble cast is strong throughout, with Plemons and Stone passing the baton of leading roles; he’s at the center of the first story, the second is a two-hander (so to speak), and the third is a Stone vehicle through and through. Plemons finds the right, desperate, off-putting note for the first film before working in a markedly different key, of dead certainty and smug condescension in the second; there, her sprung rhythms complement his smoothly, and she has a close-up of agonized reaction (you’ll know it when you see it) that she really has to sell, and does. The complexities of emotion and performance in the final story are tough to navigate, but she pulls them off, and a rare scene of her all alone, falling apart in a bathtub, has a poignancy that belies the filmmaker’s reputation for cheap shots. Margaret Qualley (like much of the cast, a holdover from Poor Things) also does some fine work, topping her co-stars with four performances, each distinct, while decidedly immersed in the filmmaker’s cock-eyed worldview.

That worldview is the primary binding element of Kinds of Kindness, and how you regard it is likely all bound up in how much you share it. Beyond that, there are sly, occasional thematic and visual crossovers; his camera movements and compositions are often deliberately discombobulating, and he deploys Jerskin Fendrix’s minimalist score like a shiv in the ribs. It’s all to keep you off balance, at the service of his well-cultivated assurances that these stories really could go anywhere—that he isn’t bound by the fear and hesitancy that stifles so much of contemporary cinema. He’ll frequently follow a popular success with a purposefully off-putting follow-up, and as he chased The Lobster with The Killing of a Sacred Dear, this one almost seems a conscious attempt to shock those who enjoyed the (if only comparatively) mild Oscar winners The Favourite and Poor Things. Even its June release date seems like a winking, sick joke. Here’s his big summer blockbuster, complete with a mid-credits scene. Chew on that, sickos. 

“Kinds of Kindness” is in theaters this weekend.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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