Kinds of Kindness Is a Tedious Follow-up to Poor Things

Kinds of Kindness Credit - Atsushi Nishijima

Yorgos Lanthimos’ polychrome gothic fairytale Poor Things was one of last year’s biggest surprise hits, thanks largely to Emma Stone’s gorgeous, kinetic performance as a Frankengirl who defiantly claims ownership of her sexuality. (She won an Oscar for it.) Poor Things, perfectly entertaining in its inventive weirdness, showed little of the sadistic knife-twisting that had marked most of Lanthimos’ previous films (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster). It seemed to have launched him in a new direction. He’ll always want to shock us in some way—that seems to be in his blood—but it appeared that maybe he’d grown out of his penchant for performative, abrasively quirky transgression.

Not so fast. The triptych film Kinds of Kindness, premiering in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, features a small crew of fine actors—Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Hong Chau, and Stone among them—in three loosely linked stories, all of which explore twisted power dynamics and the self-imposed limits of free will. Nothing wrong with any of that. But Kinds of Kindness, which Lanthimos wrote with his frequent collaborator Efthimis Filippou, is stiff, plodding, and soporific, even as it seeks to wow us with its deadpan shockeroos. There are hints of kinky but decidedly unsexy sex, a cheerfully grisly sequence in which a character slices off her own thumb with a knife, and an off-camera marital rape; also expect lots of spare, discordant piano plinking, designed to alert us to the jaunty black humor unfolding before us, just in case we don’t get the joke. But Kinds of Kindness is too parched and mannered to be either disturbing or funny or both—and not even its capable cast can rescue it.

Kinds of Kindness<span class="copyright">Atsushi Nishijima</span>
Kinds of KindnessAtsushi Nishijima

In the first story of the trio, "The Death of R.M.F.," Plemons plays Robert, a husband and businessman with a nice house and an attractive, agreeable wife, Sarah (Chau). It turns out that Robert owes everything he's got to his boss, Raymond (Dafoe), who controls his life down to the most minute detail. The car he drives, the food he eats, the drinks he orders at the bar, even the days on which he has sex with his wife: it’s all determined and monitored by Raymond, and Robert agrees dutifully—though Robert draws the line when Raymond essentially requests that he commit murder. That's when the life he knew instantaneously dissolves. Raymond moves on to control someone else, the kind and immensely pliable Rita (Stone), even as Robert tries to claw his way back into his boss’s good graces.

There’s a metaphor here, something about how work rules our lives, or how we’re never as free as we think, or something. Similarly, the movie’s second chapter, "R.M.F. Is Flying," dandles some kooky little tropes on its knee—let’s say it’s all about being prisoners of our own delusions, even when those delusions are themselves possibly a manifestation of the truth. Heady enough for you? In this section, Plemons plays a cop and husband, Daniel, whose life has been rattled by the disappearance of his wife, Liz (Stone), a marine researcher who's gone missing on an expedition. Then she’s found—hooray! But Daniel becomes convinced that the wife that’s been returned to him is not Liz. His paranoia kicks off a sequence of sinister thoughts and deeds, though his bizarre theory may in fact be accurate. Or maybe not. It’s all part of Lanthimos’ pointy-devil-pitchfork brand of trickery.

In "R.M. F. Eats a Sandwich," the third and final tale in this exercise in droll folderol, Stone and Plemons play Emily and Andrew, two footsoldiers loyal to a wacky sex cult led by placid weirdos Omi and Aka (Dafoe and Chau). Members of this cult refuse to drink water unless it’s been consecrated by the sweat of Omi and Aka; they also take turns sleeping with their creepy gurus and are required to go through a potentially deadly purification ritual if it’s suspected that they’ve had sex with anyone else. Control! Power! Free will! Well, what about them? Kinds of Kindness is a movie full of flashcard words masquerading as ideas. It’s our job to sort them out, or at least to stroke our beards thoughtfully as we pretend to understand exactly what Lanthimos and Filippou are going for here.

Kinds of Kindness<span class="copyright">Atsushi Nishijima</span>
Kinds of KindnessAtsushi Nishijima

Shot by Robbie Ryan—also the cinematographer behind The Favourite and Poor ThingsKinds of Kindness has a flat, dry look, as if groups of static images had been cut apart and reassembled into a 2D picture. Its visual precision is admirable, if not necessarily appealing. Joe Alwyn, Margaret Qualley, and Mamoudou Athie round out the cast, mostly as second or third bananas. And because Dafoe, Stone, and Plemons are all such dazzling actors, they lock easily into Lanthimos’ vibe. You can see their commitment, though that’s not the same as being energized by it.

Because Stone’s Oscar win notwithstanding, Lanthimos isn’t an actors’ director. Performers might enjoy trying to find their way into these admittedly unorthodox characters; if nothing else, Kinds of Kindness gives off an experimental theater vibe—you can see why an actor would be intrigued by its challenges. But Lanthimos’ style is so aridly precise that it limits rather than frees them. Black humor is one of the most freeing dramatic devices we’ve got. It gives us permission to laugh at all kinds of things we shouldn’t, and it’s a way to explore feelings we’d much rather nudge aside. But Lanthimos practically underlines every deadpan yuk with “Haha! JK” and a google-eye emoji; a little bit of his stylized tedium goes a long way. The one thing you have to acknowledge is that he’s practically invented his own genre—let’s call it the Cinema of Chuckling Unpleasantness. There’s no one else making movies quite like this. Thank God.

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