Friday, June 21, 2024


by Rob DiCristino

Sweet dreams are made of this.

As a married couple bickers in one of Kinds of Kindness’ opening scenes, director Yorgos Langthimos lets his camera linger on their hands; they wave and roll over the countertop separating them, accentuating the dialogue that unfolds somewhere beyond the edges of the frame. The shot is unnerving, misshapen, as if it’s the hands that are talking rather than the people. Later, another couple’s passionate kiss is framed in uncomfortable close-up; they’re not human beings engaging in an emotional action but sentient lips and tongues colliding with animalistic abandon. A naked woman lays unconscious on a veterinary scale. A wife chops off a thumb and feeds it to her husband. “You’re losing too much weight,“ says one character. “Your sperm is contaminated,” says another. In his new “tryptic fable,” the Greek filmmaker — largely considered fringe until The Favourite and Poor Things garnered more mainstream acclaim — returns to his roots to remind us that, despite our sophistication, we are merely objects, bodies at the mercy of the blood, goop, and sinew that swirls around inside.
The biological brutalities of human behavior have long been running themes in Lanthimos’ work, of course, especially in films like The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer. But Kinds of Kindness approaches them with an open hostility that hasn’t been seen since Dogtooth, resulting in an antiseptic treatise on need and desire that makes Poor Things’ wonderous surrealism look frightfully goofy and childishly naive by comparison. Its three chapters — unhelpfully titled “The Death of RMF,” “RMF is Flying,” and “RMF Eats a Sandwich” — follow characters whose slavish dependence on their base impulses seems to deny them the spiritual absolution they so desperately seek. In the first story, Robert (Jesse Plemons) is a corporate drone living on the largesse of a boss (Willem Dafoe’s Richard) who dictates his every move. In the second, Daniel’s (also Plemons) joy at the return of his missing wife (Emma Stone’s Liz) gives way to suspicion that she may be an imposter. In the third, cultist Emily (also Stone) searches for a prophesied messiah, a woman who can bring the dead back to life.

Lensed with cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s signature wide-angle detachment — no team could possibly make the gorgeous human bodies on display here look less appealing than Ryan and Lanthimos — each of Kinds of Kindness’ chapters tests its hero’s willingness to take a leap of faith, to compromise themselves in the pursuit of affection and acceptance. Consider Robert, for example, who bristles when Richard commands him to stage a car accident that will kill the titular RMF (Yorgos Stefanakos) only to learn that refusing will cost him both his job and his wife (Hong Chau). Daniel, too, is driven to crazed hysterics when asked to accept a suddenly choco-philic woman as his formerly choco-phobic wife, especially when she starts taking knives to her own vital organs at his mere suggestion. And when Emily is exiled for fraternizing with her estranged family, her search for a savior (involving a pair of Margaret Qualleys) becomes deadly. Be it at work, in marriage, or in religion, each tries and fails to assert their worthiness to the unforgiving powers-that-be.
Lanthimos regular Emma Stone follows up her Oscar-winning turn as Bella Baxter with a trio of equally cockeyed performances, the best of which is Emily, whose pant-suited terseness masks a simmering aggression toward her husband (alleged actor Joe Alwyn) and daughter (Merah Benoit). And while Hong Chau and Mamoudou Athie offer warmth to the otherwise frigid proceedings, Kinds of Kindness is unquestionably the Jesse Plemons show: Each of his three performances is built on remarkable subtleties in affect and intonation, a dexterity of body language that marks a truly gifted actor. While never quite casting the silhouette of the heroic matinee idol — Robert, in particular, has “How can that be profitable for Frito-Lay?” energy — Plemons proves he’s ready to cross the character actor line into leading man movie stardom. In fact, if the film has a major flaw, it’s that “Sandwich” sidelines Plemons in favor of Qualley’s twins, the more prominent of whom is a soft and unremarkable presence playing a largely symbolic role in an anti-climax for the ages.
But even with allowances made for its cold-blooded and often confounding approach to storytelling, Lanthimos’ film — co-written as usual with Efthimis Filippou — is far from a cynical doomscroll through the never-ending horrors of modern existence, nor is it a referendum on the essential futility of interpersonal relationships. Like its characters, its apparent misanthropy is trying (and knowingly failing) to conceal a special kind of buoyant confidence. Its blistering honesty about our very human failings inspires several — though perhaps not quite enough for a film billed as a comedy — important moments of revelry and joy. Those joys are rarely permanent, however, and perhaps Lanthimos is arguing the virtues of smaller victories, fleeting though they may be. Though its structure is sure to alienate casual moviegoers and its indifference toward living things (including animals) will inspire some vitriol, Kinds of Kindness is, in the end, a triumphant celebration of love and beauty, one that only an artist as committed to deadpan abstraction as Lanthimos could possibly conceive.

Kinds of Kindness hits U.S. theaters Friday, June 21st.

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