Film Reviews

Kinds of Kindness

Published July 5, 2024
Kindness taken to extremes...

Yorgos Lanthimos is the supreme example today of an arthouse director who has made his way into the mainstream on the back of a couple of popular successes. The period romp, The Favourite (2018), and last year’s Poor Things, propelled him from the shadows into the bright lights of the Oscars. With his new film, Kinds of Kindness, he returns to that dungeon he previously occuppied.

The two Oscar-winning features were scripted by Australian, Tony McNamara, who has a gift for raucous vulgarity that seems to play well with mainstream audiences. In this new outing, Lanthimos has reunited with his Greek buddy, Efthimis Filippou, with whom he co-authored four films that established his reputation for strange, cruel, scenarios imbued with a deadpan surrealism, like Luis Bunuel movies placed in the freezer. The black humour was everywhere in evidence, but the slapstick element had been killed off.

In Kinds of Kindness, Lanthimos and Filippou have crafted three separate stories in which the same actors reappear in different roles. It’s a small but impressive core – Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, and Hollywood’s most rapidly rising star, Margaret Qualley. This cast will lure viewers who may find themselves puzzled and even repulsed by these tales, which show characters in the grip of various compulsions, being either controlled or controlling. The glue that holds the triptych together is supplied by a character called R.M.F. (Yorgos Stefanakos) who never says a word and appears only briefly.

The first story, The Death of R.M.F. features Plemons as a man named Richard Fletcher, whose entire life is being plotted and controlled by his boss, Raymond (Willem Dafoe). It’s not the standard tale of a harrassed employee, because Raymond tells Richard when to get up, what to eat, what to wear, when to have sex with his wife, Sarah (Hong Chau), and what to read – Anna Karenina, a telling choice. Raymond has installed the Fletchers in a large, comfortable house and gives them presents of damaged sporting trophies, such as Ayrton Senna’s crash helmet, or a tennis racket broken by John McEnroe.

To earn Raymond’s largesse, Richard has to obey his every command, even when it means not having children, or crashing into another car with a view to killing the driver. When Richard timidly refuses the most extreme orders, Raymond cuts him loose. But rather than rejoicing in this freedom, the slave becomes distraught, as his familiar world begins to collapse.

In story number two, R.M.F. is Flying, Plemons plays a policeman named Daniel, whose wife, Liz, has disappeared on an obscure scientific expedition. Stricken with grief, he is acting strangely, causing concern at the station and among his friends. But when Liz (Emma Stone), is miraculously rescued and restored to him, he becomes convinced she is not really his wife, but a mysterious imposter. As he becomes intransigent in this belief, Liz tries, by the most drastic acts of obedience, to win his trust.

The final story, R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich, introduces us to Emily and Andrew (Stone and Plemons), two investigators seeking a woman who has the power to restore life. We soon find they are part of a cult, run by a guru named Omi (Willem Dafoe), who, along with his wife, Aka, (Hong Chau), exerts an absolute monopoly over his disciples’ sexual activity. The problem for Emily is that she is tortured by thoughts of the husband and small daughter she has left behind. When a visit to her old home goes wrong, she sets out by herself to find the woman with the power of life and death.

I’m providing only the barest outlines of three stories packed with weird, bleakly humorous details. Lanthimos makes no attempt to explain his characters’ actions. Although there is a twisted rationality at work in each tale, the script and the acting are largely inexpressive. Faced with personal catastrophe, the protagonists go quietly mad but adopt a calm social mask to deal with the issue. We find ourselves copying them, as the line between reality and delusion grows blurry. One thinks of G.K. Chesterton’s famous formulation: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

At a stretch, one could interpret every cruel and unusual act in this film as a form of “kindness”, in giving a person what they most urgently want. Whether it’s a healthy preference is quite another matter. To the controllers, any crumb they throw to the slaves qualifies as an act of kindness. To the brainwashed subordinates, even the most brutal command or request needs to be followed blindly, if they are to maintain favour with their overlord.

Each story has its masters and slaves, but the power relations in this film, no less than the sexual relations, are far from straightforward. Daniel, in the second story, is the most disturbed of characters, yet he becomes a tyrant in his own home. Richard, in the first story, is desperate to return to the cage from which he has just escaped. So too with Emily in the third story, whose sole focus is to be reunited with Omi’s bizarre cult. All three chapters involve demands for “love”, which can’t be separated from total submission. Sexual pathologists such as Krafft-Ebing, who investigated sado-masochism and other perversions, would have plenty to say. It’s not coincidental that the film begins with a blast of Annie Lennox singing Sweet Dreams are Made of This on a car radio. “Some of them want to abuse you, some of them want to be abused…”

The score, composed by Jerskin Fendrix, (who also provided the music for Poor Things) is nowhere near so explicit, often disintegrating into a discordant sequence of notes plucked out on the piano, echoing the lead characters’ jangled thoughts and desires.

Kinds of Kindness is an uncomfortably ‘thought-provoking’ film that will prove confusing to some viewers and repellent to others. One suspects that dedicated admirers will be in the minority, limited to those who share Lanthimos’s delight in ambiguity. As a storyteller he is not at all interested in providing explanations for actions whose motivations lie buried deep in the characters’ psyches. Although divided into three distinct parts, the action unfolds at a slow, deliberate pace, with a growing sense of creepiness, and a few truly revolting moments. It may be that the ultimate sado-masochistic relationship explored in this film is between the director and his audience.





Kinds of Kindness

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Written by Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthimis Fillippou

Starring: Jesse Plemons, Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Mamoudou Athie, Joe Alwyn, Yorgos Stefanakos, Tessa Bourgeois

USA/UK/Ireland, MA 15+, 164 mins



Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 June, 2024