Review: Yorgos Lanthimos Follows Oscar-Winning Poor Things with a Challenge in Well-Cast Anthology Kinds of Kindness

For those who have been on the journey with Yorgos Lanthimos since films like Alps and Dogtooth (and yes, even his early English-language days of The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Deer), his latest work, Kinds of Kindness, will likely not seem that shocking or inaccessible. But for those who only jumped onboard for his more recent works, such as The Favourite and the Oscar-winning Poor Things, Kindness may leave you cold, repulsed, and even confused—all of which are the sweet spots that Lanthimos has existed in for much of his career. Following Poor Things so quickly with Kinds of Kindness feels like a deliberate attempt to draw in those who responded favorably to the former and dump cold water on their heads, with a nearly three-hour running time and three barely connected stories, each of which uses the same group of actors playing different parts.

The three tales feel more like morality plays about how we respond to power and those trying to control us, whether it’s a boss, a cult leader, or even a spouse. The first story, “The Death of R.M.F.” concerns a man (Jesse Plemons), who is so eager to serve his boss (Willem Dafoe) that he allows the boss to control every aspect of his life, from the type of sandwich he has for lunch to the type of sex he has (or doesn't) with his wife (Hong Chau). Nearly every action is dictated and occasionally rewarded (the gift of a broken tennis racket from John McEnroe is the latest reward). But when the boss asks Plemons to deliberately hit another driver with his car, possibly killing him, he politely refuses, and immediately his world changes, or more specifically, empties out. His wife vanishes, he loses his job, and his immediate reaction is to go back to his boss, apologize, and agree to participate in the staged accident. But his boss is not one to take rejection well, at any level. Margaret Qualley is particularly strong in this segment as the boss’s romantic partner, who also makes it clear to Plemons that he is out. Other supporting players, such as Joe Alwyn and Mamoudou Athie pop up in all three segments in critical roles that serve the larger narrative, and it’s a great deal of fun to see how each actor is recast both in terms of character traits and looks. Emma Stone arrives late in this first part as someone who is obviously (perhaps unknowingly) Plemons’ replacement for the boss.

Like many of the other Lanthimos films I named earlier, this film is co-written with Efthimis Filippou, and like those other films, this one does not feel like the filmmaker cares one iota if it’s accessible. He blends the grotesque, the uncomfortably sexual, the morally prickly, and sloppy, choppy storytelling for something that seems uniquely his own; whether you like it or not is not inconsequential, but certainly secondary to his way of thinking.

In perhaps the least interesting of the three chapters, “R.M.F. Is Flying,” a police officer played by Plemons sees his wife (Stone) returned to him after being lost at sea for an extended period, but to his eyes and mind, she is not the same. She may even be a sinister replacement for his wife, and he sets out to prove it by harming himself to test her love for him.

In the third part, “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich” (in case you hadn’t figured it out, the voiceless character R.M.F. is the only element connecting the three stories), Plemons moves to a secondary role and Stone into the lead, with both playing members of a cult (led by the married Dafoe and Chau, naturally) who are seeking the perfect female specimen who has the hidden ability to resurrect the dead. Stone has a vision of the person they are seeking, and her ambition drives her to make foolish decisions on behalf of the cult. We also get glimpses of her life prior to joining the group, including an ill-advised visit to see her husband and young daughter—a visit that complicates her relationship with and position in the cult. This is the finest of the film’s three segments because Lanthimos allows us to see motivation and consequences, unlike the other two chapters, in which we are more passively invested.

I don't need Lanthimos to be shocking or disgusting or explicit to be interesting. Poor Things was my favorite film of last year because it was an intelligent and layered take on the Frankenstein legend that also happened to be libidinous and twisted (sometimes both at once). Kinds of Kindness isn’t the filmmaker telling his audience to piss off; instead, he’s challenging them to stay on with him for these three stories, the third of which is the payoff. It could have been its own standalone movie, and some might wish it had been. Kinds of Kindness is not meant to be a pleasant night out at the movies, but I think a lot of his recent converts will still get a charge out of what he’s presenting here.

Of the rotating cast of characters, Plemons is the standout performer, shifting not just looks but personalities and even the way he carries himself. I’ve always liked him as an actor but he rises to the risky, warped challenges and embraces them convincingly. Qualley also impresses after a mostly thankless role in Poor Things. Upon reflection, the film may be less about succumbing to power and more about the lengths people will go to in order to hold onto what they have, the things that stabilize their lives, and on that level, I think people will respond to the messages of Kinds of Kindness more than they even realize on first viewing. The problem will be getting them in for that second screening.

The film is now playing in theaters, including a one-week, 35mm run at the Music Box Theatre.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.