Kinds of Kindness: A Maximalist Marathon of Power and Control (It’s Also Very Funny)

Lanthimos returns to signature nihilist mode for a devilish picture in which sex, violence, cruelty and all manner of manipulations are up for grabs. It's also very funny.

9 mins read

You have to hand it to Yorgos Lanthimos. After taking the Oscar season by storm with his ribald liberation saga Poor Things, the celebrated writer-director has returned to his anarchic origins with the misanthropic Kinds of Kindness, a marathon of twisted deadpan and gleeful jolts. Those who found Poor Things a hoot, giving Lanthimos his most commercially successful picture, will be surprised to find him back in the macabre (dis)comfort zone where the fifty-year-old Greek filmmaker began his career nine pictures ago. 

That zone established Lanthimos’ style in his 2009 debut Dogtooth, which found the future world class moviemaker mounting the most bizarro family story ever, a cockeyed tale of adult children imprisoned by a controlling father. While such black-humored cynicism was a staple in pictures like The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster, time found Lanthimos increasingly audience friendly, evidenced by  Poor Things’ crowd-pleasing emancipation and The Favourite’s 18th century comic power plays on a lascivious Queen Anne’s court. Both pictures won Oscars for their leading ladies. 

Forget such accessibility this time out as Kinds of Kindness wholeheartedly returns Lanthimos to his formerly signature nihilist mode for a devilish picture in which sex, violence, cruelty and all manner of manipulations are up for grabs. Literalists need not apply, but if you can get on his poker-faced wavelength, you’ll be rewarded with two hours and forty-four minutes of progressive-transgressive, weird fun. 

Deploying an anthological approach to a trio of absurdist tales, Lanthimos gets at a number of subjects—corporate exploitation and control; marital change and subsumption; and the drastic costs of slavish devotion to false idols. He also gets maximum mileage out of a terrific ensemble including muse of late Stone, a revelatory Jesse Plemons (taking Cannes’ Best Actor prize), Poor Things alums Willem Dafoe and Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Mamoudou Athie and Joe Alwyn, each of whom appear in different guises across the picture’s offbeat triptych.

In the opening and best segment, Plemons plays a meek corporate drone named Robert who has sold his soul to CEO Raymond (Dafoe). Robert has given years of work, sweat and life to Raymond, so much so that their contract extends to control of his marriage, sex life, diet and reading habits (Anna Karenina is a pre-req). In exchange, Robert gets a window office and is gifted a circa 80s, rage-pretzeled McEnroe tennis racket as well as the illusion of security with wife Sarah (Chau). But Robert and Raymond’s love (romantic, professional, paternal) is shattered after Robert declines a morally reprehensible command. Cast out of Eden’s good graces, he meets mysterious Rita (Stone), with a few secrets of her own. Why give up control of our lives to a capitalist regime ready to discard and replace us at will? Because, the segment asserts, we live to work and despite the radical costs of this Faustian bargain, domination by a controlling boss is still a better option than the void.

The midsection takes a detour to demented domesticity in its tale of befuddled police officer Daniel (Plemons), whose oceanographer wife Liz (Stone) faces death at sea only to return, at least to his mind, a different person altogether, or at least one transformed by what she believes an inexplicable, life-altering episode. The pair try to restart their faltering marriage but despite the support of their friends with benefits neighbors (Athie, Qualley) and Liz’s skeptical father (Dafoe), ennui turns to suspicious minds, self-destruction and intimations of cannibalism. Who is sane and who isn’t? How much of one’s self can be sacrificed to save a marriage? Are there winners in marital warfare? Can change doom a relationship?

The final and lengthiest section is perhaps the most brutal, introducing Emily (Stone) and Andrew (Plemons), members of a coastal love cult led by guru Oma (Dafoe) and wife Aka (Chau). The mysterious pair scours the south, inlcuding local morgues, looking for a prophesied savior with powers of resurrection. Meanwhile, Emily secretly triages a secondary priority, that of her alienated husband (Alwyn) and young daughter, whom she’s abandoned for the cult. Group sex, body fluid “contamination,” marital rape and a second expulsion from paradise are on order, dialing up a game Qualley in a dual role holding the cards. The segment’s pansexual maneuvers, including a fatherly, speedo-ed seducer Dafoe,  inform questions of personal autonomy and, running through the entire film, a question of subsuming the self.

Lanthimos, in collaboration with frequent DP Robbie Ryan, shot the picture around New Orleans but in a sort of indefinably bland, nowhere-everywhere sense of America that could be any strip malled outlying enclave. His leisurely film will be a test for impatient viewers (the mostly Gen Z audience at my screening was alternately shocked/bored) and has been paced for maximum disorientation, deliberate and tension-ratcheting in the oddest ways, a clever juxtaposition teasing unease out of seemingly ordinary events while presenting radically ferocious acts dispassionately. This is undoubtedly part and parcel of returning screenwriting collaborator Efthimis Filippou (Dogtooth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster), a dynamic pivoting Lanthimos back to his caustic roots.

This unpredictable movie can also be unexpectedly affecting, never more than when the dazzling Plemmons walks a delicate line between clear sincerity and higher altitude satire, sending up his characters, sure, but with real feeling. It’s a comic-poignant-bizarre balancing act and perhaps the actor’s finest onscreen hour (or three) to date, as if a formerly perceived character actor corrects us to emerge a leading man. 

Stone’s third feature collaboration with Lanthimos finds the pair expectedly simpatico; there are no risks she seems unwilling to take, again freeing herself physically and emotionally to revel in Lanthimos’ eccentricities. One can easily imagine a continued collaboration par excellence of future heights for the growingly counterculture actress and director working, eternally, outside established narrative norms.

Kinds of Kindness is a love-hate proposition in its methodical, maximalist statement on abandoning personal agency to some very dark ends. The film won’t be for everyone and pays off in defiant tonal strangeness more than traditional substance. But it is never less than involving and its cast is eminently watchable. Even when it asks a lot of its audience, if you plug into Lanthimos’ sardonic disposition the picture is a grimly welcome antidote to American summer movie banality, a corrective made by a button pusher working his damndest to make us uncomfortably entertained. How’s that for an oxymoron?

3 1/2 stars

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