Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Spotlight

Kinds of Kindness — Yorgos Lanthimos

June 20, 2024

Spare a thought for the enfant terrible who finds themselves just this side of respectable. The filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has, over the past 15 years, emerged as the most commercially successful and critically lauded voice of the “Greek Weird Wave,” establishing an instantly recognizable style (sterile compositions, long tracking shots, fisheye lenses), tone (deadpan absurdism), and pet motifs (jockeying for affection, sexual impropriety, silly dances). Lanthimos has inspired imitators, fearless collaborators, and has, improbably, achieved mainstream acceptance without sacrificing his idiosyncrasy. But when your primary aim is to scandalize the bourgeoisie, what’s one to do when you’ve become so palatable that your previous two films, 2018’s The Favourite and last year’s Poor Things, are nominated for a combined 21 Academy Awards and become worldwide sensations? (Poor Things is far from inaccessible, but it’s easy to forget that it’s an arch, steampunk allegory about a woman with the surgically implanted mind of a toddler on a sexually-explicit journey of self-discovery released by Disney that grossed nearly $120 million.)

Apparently, you make Kinds of Kindness. Recognizing that there is no subject matter arthouse patrons will find too off-putting if you cast Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe, the film instead attempts to alienate through bloat (it runs a languid 165 minutes), obtuse internal logic, and by reinventing itself just as the viewer is growing acclimated. A triptych loosely governed by the themes of social controls and allowing one’s self to be manipulated, Kinds of Kindness represents a slightly different kind of endurance test from the filmmaker; challenging the audience less through extreme gore, abundant nudity, and flouting of societal norms (although, still yes to all of the above) and more through the film’s digressive structure, which plays at times as though it’s working through its thoughts on a handful of thinly-sketched premises and isn’t compelled to arrive at any sort of tidy conclusion. Lanthimos’ latest combines puckish self-amusement with an almost throat-clearing quality, as though no one idea here was developed enough to sustain a feature-length work, so instead here are three undercooked scenarios that perhaps might support one another and, taken as a whole, lend it shape.

Theoretically constructed around the recurring character of R.M.F., a small role played by Yorgos Stefanakos — whose online biography lists his qualifications as both a notary public and longtime friend of Lanthimos — Kinds of Kindness’ opening and most fully realized chapter, “The Death of R.M.F.,” stars Jesse Plemons as, Robert, a well-heeled factotum at an architecture firm operating under the strict guidance of his boss, Raymond (Dafoe). Although outwardly doting — Raymond is fond of kissing his male employees and talks about how much he loves them in almost fatherly terms — Dafoe’s character dictates the events of Robert’s life down to the smallest and most personal details, including what he eats, what books he reads, and how frequently he makes love to his wife, Sarah (Hong Chau). When Robert follows Raymond’s bizarre instructions, he’s lavished with extravagant gifts — Raymond’s got a thing for rare sports memorabilia and most recently bestowed a genuine smashed John McEnroe racket — and it’s as if the sun shines exclusively on him. However, when Robert refuses to honor Raymond’s most extreme edict, to plow his luxury SUV into the mysterious R.M.F. and thus kill him in the process, he’s cast out alone into the world as everything that defines him — his job, his wife, his status, and his sense of self — is systematically stripped away. As Robert attempts to reclaim his old life, he learns of Rita (Stone), a young woman who appears to be Raymond’s new mentee and might be operating from the same set of instructions as he was.

From there, we’re on to chapter two, “R.M.F. is Flying,” where Plemons is now playing a police officer named Daniel whose life is put in a tailspin when his marine biologist wife, Liz (Stone again), goes missing for months after her research vessel is lost at sea. When Liz is remarkably found alive, inhabiting a small deserted island, and brought home, what should be a joyous reunion is complicated by Daniel’s strongly held but impossible-to-prove the contention that the woman claiming to be Liz is not, in fact, his wife. For starters, Liz hated chocolate and this person does not; she also has different-sized feet than Liz and can’t remember Daniel’s favorite song, although admittedly she’s not too far off either. Desperate to rid himself of someone whom he believes to be an imposter, Daniel devises a series of increasingly extreme requests of the woman claiming to be his wife that prove her devotion while exploiting a horrifying disinterest in her own self-preservation. Finally, we conclude with “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich,” where Stone and Plemons are now Emily and Andrew respectively, members of a beachside sex cult run by Omi (Dafoe) and Aka (Chau) tasked with finding a messianic figure with the ability to allegedly raise the dead. Adhering to strict guidelines that are supposedly meant to combat “contamination” — eating fish is verboten, they only drink water from a giant jug they keep in the trunk of their car, sexual intercourse with anyone other than Omi or Aka is grounds for banishment, etc. — Emily and Andrew travel around the American south in Emily’s souped-up purple Dodge Charger, living out of hotel rooms, all in search of a woman who has A.) a dead twin sister, B.) the correct breast to navel distance, and C.) appeared to Emily in a dream where she was stuck at the bottom of a swimming pool. This is the part where one is supposed to say, “It all makes sense in context,” but that would be a lie.

Filmed over seven weeks during the protracted post-production of Poor Things (presumably in rough chronological order, as most of the actors’ haircuts get noticeably shorter with each subsequent module), Kinds of Kindness has Lanthimos reassembling his regular troupe — in addition to Stone and Dafoe, the production also includes actress Margaret Qualley, cinematographer Robbie Ryan, editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis, and composer Jerskin Fendrix, all of whom he literally just worked with — in service of what amounts to a palate cleanser. The star wattage of the cast, as well as the filmmaker’s ballooning stature, could overshadow how fundamentally modest the film is, playing much closer in scope and sensibilities to Lanthimos’ earlier European-set films like Dogtooth and Alps. Those films trafficked in secret subcultures and knowingly inflammatory situations that pushed discomfort to the foreground and leaned so heavily on bone-dry performances that the question of whether you could even classify them as comedies is entirely dependent on one’s tolerance for mortification.

By comparison, Kinds of Kindness is more broadly conceived and isn’t above, say, bawdy cutaways, sight gags, or large goofy gestures catering to the meme crowd; early marketing materials were built around Stone grinding in rhythm to the Cobrah song “Brand New Bitch,” a moment that’s even more audacious when presented as a celebratory mic drop in the film proper. At the same time, Kinds of Kindness finds Lanthimos as prickly and withholding as ever, but his moves are becoming predictable in their eagerness to shock. As is the director’s tendency, the actors are encouraged to deliver their lines in an almost affectation-free cadence that flattens out most of the truly exasperating sentiments into a neutral register, but this all too often falls back on characters discussing their sex lives with the studied dispassion of a weather report. The film’s segmented format also emphasizes how often it relies on outré tropes — all three chapters involve characters committing self-harm, they all climax with acts of graphic violence — which feels less like thematic echoes and more like each story retreating to (relatively) safe terrain after spinning its wheels for the better part of an hour. And that’s the crux of the issue: no matter how committed the actors are or how rigorously Lanthimos orchestrates an air of inscrutable chaos, the film’s distended runtime allows far too long to consider how familiar the wind-up on the jokes is and how unsurprising the punchline is.

DIRECTOR: Yorgos Lanthimos;  CAST: ddd;  DISTRIBUTOR: Searchlight Pictures;  IN THEATERS: June 21;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 44 min.