Yorgos Lanthimos's 'Kinds of Kindness' Is a Poor Thing

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn, Mamoudou Athie, Hunter Schafer

Photo: Atsushi Nishijima

BY Barbara Goslawski Published Jun 26, 2024


There's never a dull moment in the cinematic mind of Yorgos Lanthimos — but that doesn't always result in decipherable work. A modern fable anthology, Kinds of Kindness renders an oddly sprawling, low-impact compilation of the director's previous obsessions. Even with its characteristic absurdist core, the sum of its three parts feels like a test of one's capacity for tedium.

Kinds of Kindness will divide audiences between those that discovered recently Lanthimos via The Favourite and Poor Things and his die-hard longtime fans. Even the more devout will question this one. His capacity to fashion a taut, well-orchestrated running joke in which flawed mortals grasp for the divine becomes a tapestry of opaque connections. There are the usual quirky and darkly hilarious details throughout, along with a particularly harsh level of cruelty, but Kinds of Kindness feels overly simplistic and underdeveloped.

The film starts with a dynamic flourish and the promise of twisted pleasure as the Eurythmics'  "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" blasts from the speakers. This vitality quickly peters out, leaving only the most obvious clue as to what is unfolding. The lyrics, referring to how some of us want to use or abuse or be the recipient of this treatment, is the not-so-subtle hint about the purpose of Lanthimos's current endeavour.

Fortunately, Lanthimos has assembled a strong ensemble cast, with actors (Jesse Plemons, Emma Stone, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley Joe Alwyn and Mamoudou Athie) taking on recurring roles throughout. As in all his films, characters give or take complete control of each other, depending on their roles. This repertory, theatre-inspired strategy helps to maintain the viewer's interest as the film jumps from one part straight into another.

If anything, what truly ties this triptych together are the degrees of pathos. In the first section, and least thematically original, a happily married company man (Plemons), seeks to free himself from the absolute control of his boss (Dafoe), who dictates every aspect of his daily life, right down to his diet, bedtime and sexual relations with his wife (Chau). The details here are almost straight repetitions of dynamics that have occurred in almost all of his previous films.

In the middle part, Plemons then plays a stoic police officer struggling with the sudden disappearance of his wife (Stone). When she returns, he's certain that she is a fake. He sees outrageous changes and as he becomes increasingly agitated, demanding more and more sadistic proof of her loyalty and true identity. Lanthimos at least has some fun with the tension between her new behaviours and her husband's complete inability to accept them.

The typical desire for divinity or at least access to it comes to a head in the final segment. A man and a woman (Plemons and Stone) forsake their private lives and individuality to be devoted cult members. Their leaders have provided them with nonsensically random but highly specific instructions to seek out a promised saviour. Due to the complications that arise from this seemingly straightforward goal, this is the segment that offers glimpses of Lanthimos's greatness, and it's mostly due to the character dynamics.

Despite the austere acting styles required of these performers, they still manage to provide moments of depth, especially considering the minimalism asked of them. Jesse Plemons (who won the Best Actor Award at the 77th Cannes Film Festival for his work here) is the standout in Kinds of Kindness, as he uses his trademark quiet intensity to convey volumes with the slightest look or gesture. His complete bewilderment throughout the episodes could have been painfully monotonous in lesser hands, but he manages to wring something refreshing each time.

However, Plemons performance cannot mask how disappointing the film is from a stylistic standpoint. Returning to his more minimalist roots, filled with stark cruelty, the celebrated director reunites with his Dogtooth and The Lobster co-writer Efthimis Filippou, only to create a muted work. Instead of giving audiences that familiar laboratory setting to study these bizarre beings and their unnervingly recognizable patterns, Robbie Ryan's antiseptic cinematography (a signature of the director's beginnings) merely services this compendium of mean-spirited acts rather than expand on it in any profound manner.

The same can be said with Jerskin Fendrix's music. Admittedly, there's a lovely quality to its subtleties, especially the chanting and repetition, which suggest a divinity just out of reach. What's lacking is that added charge of Lanthimos's past films, including Poor Things, the first collaboration between the two. Lanthimos has previously used music a rhythmic device, punctuating the narrative beats (even the dark humour) and the propulsive editing that he used to transform his most mundane observations into the sublime. 

Kinds of Kindness reads like the filmmaker's own pushback against the emotional and aesthetic excesses of his Oscar-winning Poor Things. It's certainly a way of re-calibrating the mainstream success he has just recently enjoyed, but the three-part structure doesn't serve him well, as it prevents him from building a cohesive statement.

Lanthimos can't be blamed for trying something new — it's just that not all experiments work. The extreme level of paring back here does nothing to create a satisfying experience — intellectually, aesthetically or even spiritually. Loyal fans will be debating this one with vigour, as they should, but something with more dedicated drive, however understated, would have been a greater kind of kindness.

(Searchlight Pictures)

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