Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kinds of Kindness is three movies — and two directors — in one

Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons, and Willem Dafoe embrace closely in a warm orange light in Kinds of Kindness
Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures

The director of Poor Things and The Lobster is up to his old tricks in this weird anthology

What happens to auteur theory when a film director appears to be two markedly different auteurs at the same time? If you were working on a unified theory of surrealist director Yorgos Lanthimos that established a continuum between his early works in Greece, his English-language breakthroughs The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and his period Oscar contenders The Favourite and Poor Things, get ready to scrap it. Lanthimos’ new movie, Kinds of Kindness, arriving just six months after Poor Things, is a hard left turn — or perhaps a jump into a parallel universe that establishes two distinct tracks to the director’s career.

It’s like The Favourite and Poor Things never happened. Those films’ rococo look, stylistic flamboyance, and broad, almost ribald humor is nowhere to be found. Neither is the archness and melodrama of Australian screenwriter Tony McNamara, who worked on both. Instead, Kinds of Kindness stages unsettling, abstract moral fables in a starkly photographed modern world. The humor is underplayed, mordant, and pitch-black. It’s instantly recognizable as the work of that other Lanthimos, the one who made Dogtooth, The Lobster, and the darkly menacing Sacred Deer. Unsurprisingly, it reunites Lanthimos with his co-screenwriter on those films, Efthimis Filippou.

Maybe Lanthimos is aware of this bifurcation in his work: It seems like split identities are on his mind. Kinds of Kindness is actually an anthology of three shortish films, with a total run time of 164 minutes. Each of the three uses the same troupe of core actors: Jesse Plemons, Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn, and Mamoudou Athie. The same faces keep coming back as different people. And within each of the three stories, characters contend with identities that have been broken in two, that they don’t seem to have control over, or that are unreliable in other ways.

Emma Stone stands with her head tilted back next to a purple Dodge Challenger in front of an anonymous medical building. There’s a figure in a wheelchair with its back to the camera
Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures

In the first film, “The Death of R.M.F.,” Plemons plays Robert, a businessman who has allowed his powerful boss, Raymond (Dafoe), to take over every aspect of his life, detailing precisely what he eats and when he has sex with his wife (Chau). After failing to hospitalize himself via a car accident per Raymond’s orders, Robert tries to break free of his boss’s control. That doesn’t go well, and events take a dark turn.

The second segment, “R.M.F. Is Flying,” focuses on Plemons again, this time as Daniel, a police officer whose wife, Liz (Stone), a marine biologist, has gone missing on a research expedition. When Liz returns, Daniel becomes obsessed with the idea that she’s an impostor. That doesn’t go well, and events take a dark turn. (This segment bears a striking resemblance to Julia Armfield’s excellent 2022 novel Our Wives Under the Sea.)

The third episode, “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich,” casts Stone and Plemons as Emily and Andrew, cultists trying to track down a prophesied woman with the power of resurrection. The woman is central to the beliefs of Andrew and Emily’s bizarre, water-obsessed cult, led by Omi (Dafoe) and Aka (Chau). On the mission, Emily secretly and hesitantly reconnects with her husband (Alwyn) and young daughter, exposing herself to her previous, pre-cult life. That doesn’t go well, and events take a dark turn.

Jesse Plemons carries a broken wooden tennis racket in a glass case past a posh house in Kinds of Kindness
Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures

None of these people are R.M.F., by the way. R.M.F. are the initials of an incidental but significant character in all three stories who, in the movie’s funniest meta joke, bears a passing resemblance to Lanthimos himself. R.M.F. is played by Yorgos Stefanakos, who, according to the IMDb, is a notary from Athens and an old friend of Lanthimos and Filippou.

If you’ve seen any of Lanthimos’ pre-Favourite movies, particularly The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, you’ll have a sense for what to expect from Kinds of Kindness. But Lanthimos newbies coming straight from Poor Things and its 11 Oscar nominations may be in for a shock. The flavor of surrealism Lanthimos employs here is very different. Each story takes a somewhat recognizable situation from modern, middle-class life and puts a twist on it that is absurd, symbolic, or terrifying — and frequently all three. The performances are deliberately stilted, and the characters’ behavior is inexplicably weird, but somehow painfully relatable at the same time. Where David Lynch’s movies, for example, tap into the unnerving illogic of dreams, Lanthimos — this version of him, anyway — takes slightly cruel delight in making the emotional realities of waking life as upsetting and unnerving as nightmares.

In this, he gets a lot of help from composer Jerskin Fendrix and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who both rolled straight into Kinds of Kindness from Poor Things. For my money, Fendrix’s discomfiting plinky-plonk musical sketches work much better in this alienated modern world than they did in Poor Things’ Victorian fantasia. Ryan, meanwhile, turns in radically different work for this project. Where Poor Things was saturated in lush, artificial lighting and distorted fish-eye-lens frames, Kinds of Kindness is shot with the geometrical, roomy austerity of a Stanley Kubrick movie.

Willem Dafoe sits in evening light in a pink windcheater and speedos in Kinds of Kindness
Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures

The movie was filmed in and around New Orleans, and it gets fantastic mileage from its locations, conjuring a distinctive mood for each segment: sleek, luxurious modernism in “The Death of R.M.F.,” becalmed suburbia in “R.M.F Is Flying,” and seedy edgelands in “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich.” Lanthimos, Ryan, and the costume and production design teams keep coming up with cool, arresting images: Stone peeling out of a motel car park in a purple Dodge Challenger; Dafoe and Chao bending over to cry single tears into a paddling pool; Dafoe strutting his stuff in dress shorts and high socks; Plemons tenderly stroking the face of a bum in a police station.

Even within the constraints of Lanthimos’ underplayed style, a movie like this is a treat for the actors, and Plemons’ transformation is particularly extraordinary: not just his bearing, but his whole body type seems to shift from piece to piece. You could call this movie The Plemons Variations. Stone’s agonizingly brittle performance as Emily dominates the third segment, although Dafoe and Chao are hilariously convincing as smug cult leaders. Lanthimos’ sensibility is an ideal match for the warped tranquility of a modern cult, and this third segment might be the most enjoyably weird window to peek into in Kinds of Kindness.

It’s not the tidiest of the stories, though, and by the point it arrives, viewers have already been immersed in Lanthimos’ uncomfortable world for a long time. All three stories sit somewhere between short-form and long-form storytelling, and all three unfold at an unhurried pace. It’s a long sit, which may be part of the reason why the first story, “The Death of R.M.F.,” feels the most gripping and incisive. It will be interesting to try watching the three separately, like a miniseries, when the movie is available at home; I can also imagine them expanded into individual 80- or 90-minute movies, as Planet Terror and Death Proof were after the release of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 pulp anthology Grindhouse.

But watching them in isolation means missing the subtle but fascinating echoes between them, and the cumulative effect of piecing together the fragmented performances of the film’s brilliant cast. Poor Things is ultimately a hopeful journey for a deconstructed person, Stone’s Bella Baxter, who’s working to make herself whole. Kinds of Kindness returns us to the Lanthimos who — cruelly, but with tenderness and wry humor — prefers to pick people apart, open them up, and lay them out on the slab.

Kinds of Kindness debuts in theaters on June 21.

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