‘Kinds of Kindness’ Review: Bold, Bizarre, Self Impressed—Also Masterful

A car crash, self amputation, a sex cult—Yorgos Lanthimos' new film is so singular and divisive, it’s likely not to just turn viewers against each other but also against themselves.

Emma Stone and Jesse Plemons in Kinds of Kindness. Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

A bravado act of inscrutability that is in turns awe-inspiringly bold and tediously self-impressed, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kinds of Kindnesswhich had its world premiere last month at the Cannes Film Festival—is so singular and divisive, it’s likely not to just turn viewers against each other but also against themselves.

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KINDS OF KINDNESS ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou
Starring: Jesse Plemons, Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Mamoudou Athie, Joe Alwyn
Running time: 165 mins.

How grateful you will feel, in this sea of sequels and IP, to be witnessing something brimming with such originality that it is difficult to find a film to liken it to, even amongst director’s own aggressively esoteric oeuvre. (This film, like The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer, was co-written by Lanthimos’ longtime collaborator and Greek countryman, the novelist and playwright Efthimis Filippou.) And yet at the same time, how desperate you will be for sensible plot mechanics, identifiable character motivation, or for at least a portion of the cubic ton of “why’s” that stockpile over the film’s two hour and 45-minute runtime to be answered, or even reasonably considered.

Instead, we get a movie that will evince groans and eye rolls from commoners accustomed to the emotional sense and narrative logic of conventional filmmaking, while simultaneously inspiring knowing head nods and ironic laughter from those friends who are forever completing their PhD in Charlie Kaufman Studies at David Lynch University.  

The film is told in three extended chapters, each loosely connected by Lanthimos’s artistic impenetrability (mercifully, this time out he eschews his trademark fisheye lens); a shared and very game cast of well-known actors playing different characters (and sometimes multiple characters in the same story); as well as themes about purpose, identity and difficult if not impossible to fulfill requests. 

Willem Dafoe, Jesse Plemons and Hong Chau (from left) in Kinds of Kindness. Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Only one character appears in all three segments— a mysterious and mostly non-speaking bearded gentlemen named R.M.F. (In the first section, the letters are embroidered on his shirt pocket.) Played by Yorgos Stefanakos, a longtime buddy of Lanthimos’ who also appeared in last year’s Oscar-winning Poor Things, the character’s name is used in the title of each of the three mini films that make the Kinds of Kindness whole: “The Death of R.M.F,” “R.M.F is Flying,” and “R.M.F Eats a Sandwich.” He feels like a stand-in for the director—or maybe he’s the pretentious, arthouse equivalent of the floating feather device from Forest Gump. 

He is, not unlike the movie itself, everything and nothing at all.

The movie begins and ends with a car crash—one on purpose and one the result of reckless driving. Robert (Jesse Plemons, on such a hot streak right now that his every performance seems to build on and outdo the last) is tasked with crashing his light blue Ford Bronco into R.M.F’s dark blue BMW by a businessman named Raymond (Willem Dafoe), who controls and makes possible every aspect of Robert’s cushy suburban life. 

Why does he make such a demand? How did this unusual arrangement come to be in the first place? Why is Dafoe’s character wearing a turtleneck with shorts, sandals and knee socks? Ours is not to wonder why, but to simply go along for the ride and hope we don’t get t-boned like R.M.F—and then shake off the glass and walk off the headache when we inevitably do.  

Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe (from left) in Kinds of Kindness. Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

In the second story—which includes among other elements a briefly glimpsed videotape of a sexually explicit foursome—Plemons is a cop whose wife (Emma Stone, Lanthimos’ triumphant muse and cinematic playmate) returns after being lost at sea but doesn’t quite seem herself. That may be because her feet are too big for her old shoes—or perhaps because when her husband instructs her to chop off her fingers and sauté them for dinner with some cauliflower, she does so as readily as June Cleaver making pot roast for Beaver and the gang.   

By the time we get to the third chapter, about Stone’s formerly married housewife—who has abandoned her suburban idyl to search for a person who can raise the dead on behalf of some kind of a sex cult (this time out, Dafoe is in an orange Speedo when he isn’t naked)—you kind of have to throw up your hands. We have already encountered a hedgehog, a wooden tennis racket once smashed by John McEnroe, nonconsensual medical abortion, a self-administered hepatectomy, dogs eating pasta, near fatal sessions in a blazing outdoor sauna, a swan dive into an empty pool— the list, like the movie, goes on and on.  

Yet Lanthimos is so sure-handed and masterful in his craftsmanship, his cast so able and willing to crawl into whatever strange corner that he leads them to, that you cannot help but respect the man and his bizarre creation, even while resenting its obtuseness and self-regarding nature. Rarely if ever will you watch a film that you will be so happy to see and so eager to have end—in part because it is so deeply disconcerting and in part because you’ll be so eager to talk about it with your friends, no matter what they majored in.   


‘Kinds of Kindness’ Review: Bold, Bizarre, Self Impressed—Also Masterful