‘Kinds of Kindness’ Review: Yorgos Lanthimos Brings Back Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe for a Surreal Creep-Fest

Cannes 2024: “The Favourite” and “Poor Things” were fun, but this trio of dark and disturbing stories is old-style Lanthimos

Kinds of Kindness
Margaret Qualley,Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe in "Kinds of Kindness" (Searchlight Pictures)

How much of a cinematic magician is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, anyway? We may soon find out. 

With Lanthimos’ seriously disturbed but thoroughly entertaining triptych “Kinds of Kindness” premiering Friday at the Cannes Film Festival, the question seems inescapable: Can this nasty new piece of work, the darkest and most implacably unsettling thing he’s done in years, entice the audiences who swooned for 2018’s twisted period picture “The Favourite” and 2023’s even more twisted Victorian steampunk Frankenstein story “Poor Things” to the tune of more than $200 million in total grosses and a combined five Academy Awards?

“Kinds of Kindness,” you see, is not the kind of friendly-surreal outing that “The Favourite” and “Poor Things” were. Those films defaulted to fun and extravagance, especially when compared with the rigorous absurdities of Lanthimos’ early movies like “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster.”

“Kindness,” by contrast, defaults to darkness and creepiness. It’s like a three-part, near three-hour immersion in the mood of Lanthimos’s deeply troubling 2017 film “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” in which Barry Keoghan’s character charms his way into a doctor’s family and then insists that the doctor (Colin Farrell) kill one of his family members.

(Hmm, Barry Keoghan infiltrating and upending a rich family — haven’t we seen that recently, “Saltburn” fans?)

“Kindness,” which displays precious little of its title virtue, is a cornucopia of black humor, dark thrills and assorted murders, couplings and things that make you go eeewww. If Lanthimos’ last two films seemed to be the work of a (slightly) mellower guy, this one is the fully caffeinated dude who simultaneously creeped and delighted arthouse denizens long before his movies started winning Oscars.

Two of those Oscars have gone to leading actresses Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) and Emma Stone (“Poor Things”), and the idiosyncratic director was a magnet for top-drawer talent from the moment “Dogtooth” appeared in Cannes and went on to score a shocking Best Foreign Language Film nomination. In “Kindness,” he’s brought back Stone and “Poor Things” costar Willem Dafoe while adding a de facto company that includes Jesse Plemons, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Mamoudou Athie and Joe Alwyn.

They all take part in three stories that are linked by cast and tone, but little else. In “The Death of R.M.F.,” the opening episode, Plemons plays Robert, a man who seems to have a cushy job working for mysterious mogul Raymond (Dafoe) — until it turns out that the job consists of living his life exactly to Dafoe’s instructions, from his choice of shirt every day to his reading material (“Anna Karenina”) to his weight to his choice of wife to the unpleasant assignments he’s sometimes given. (Such as, drive your SUV into this man at this intersection at this time of night.) As he begins to wonder if slavish obedience really is a good career choice, he crosses paths with Emma Stone’s Rita, who may be a kindred spirit — or something more ominous.

The episode sets up Lanthimos and his collaborators’ style: Plemons is frequently shot from below and the side, a distinctly off-putting angle, while Jerskin Fendrix’s music is long on atonal, discordant piano notes (except in a bar scene where Fendrix is visible in the corner playing lounge piano; in that one, he’s beautifully melodic). Everything is stilted and a little off, and it’s calibrated to an exquisite degree. This is a master class in deadpan creepiness, and it’s not meant to be much fun.  

That sequence takes up almost a full hour and feels like a whole movie, not a chapter. But it’s followed by Part 2, “R.M.F. is Flying,” in which Plemons is a cop and Stone is his wife, who’s gone missing during a diving expedition. Plemons is so distraught that when another couple drops by to comfort him over dinner, he insists that they all watch old videos of them in happier days – not birthday-party videos, mind you, but group-sex videos. That’s just the beginning, and before long Plemons’ character has steered this lengthy vignette straight into David Cronenberg-style body-horror territory. In fact, it earns that title even more strongly than Cronenberg’s Cannes movie does.

And then there’s Part 3, “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich,” in which Stone and Plemons play Emily and Andrew, members of a cult led by Omi (Dafoe). His singular obsessions may bring to mind General Jack D. Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove” and his own paranoia around precious bodily fluids. But there’s more than just staying hydrated at stake here, because Emily and Andrew are on an important mission to find a young woman who can, essentially, raise the dead. (She must pass many tests to show she’s the one, and her breasts and navel must also be exactly the right proportions.)

Like “The French Dispatch” was for Wes Anderson, “Kinds of Kindness” is something of a sampler pack of its director’s deeply held interests: deadpan surrealism, gore, nudity, stilted rituals and Emma Stone dancing. It’s considerably less playful than his last two films, and it is deeply dark. Its laughs come from discomfort, not delight, the way they did seven years ago in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”

The plot (or plots) of “Kinds of Kindness” aren’t as overtly vicious as “Sacred Deer” was, but make no mistake — this is Lanthimos in his full-on kinky and unsettling mode, positing an alternate world that runs on completely different rules and treats violence and depravity with an offhanded casualness. It’s basically Lanthimos gathering coconspirators like Stone and Dafoe and asking his big new audience if they remember the director he used to be.

For those who do remember, “Kinds of Kindness” is an oversized gift from a delightfully diseased imagination, bracing and quietly assaultive in ways that can get under your skin. For those who aren’t entirely comfortable with that Lanthimos, all we can say is: beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

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