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Yorgos Lanthimos exhausts his ideas, and his audience, in 'Kinds of Kindness'

Jesse Plemons plays three different characters in<em> Kinds of Kindness </em>— an effort that won him the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Atsushi Nishijima
Searchlight Pictures
Jesse Plemons plays three different characters in Kinds of Kindness — an effort that won him the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.

With his grimly funny movies about people doing cruel things to each other under surreally absurd circumstances, the Greek-born filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has long been what you might call an acquired taste. I acquired it pretty early on myself, when I first saw — and loved — his viciously warped satire Dogtooth, back in 2009.

In more recent years, it’s been gratifying to see so many others acquire it, too, embracing the director’s brilliant period comedies, The Favourite and Poor Things, both commercial hits that won Oscars. Lanthimos’ success is not to be taken lightly; he’s one of a few European filmmakers I can think of who’s managed to go Hollywood without diluting what makes him distinctive.

So I wish I had kinder things to say about his new film, which is called Kinds of Kindness. But for the first time in a while — probably since his 2017 misfire, The Killing of a Sacred Deer — Lanthimos seems to be spinning his wheels. Kinds of Kindness, which runs a very deliberate two hours and 45 minutes, spins three dark fables set in the present day, all of which feature the same actors playing different characters.

In the first story, Jesse Plemons plays Robert, who lives under the thumb of his boss, Raymond, played by Willem Dafoe. (It’s unclear what kind of business they’re in.) Each morning, Raymond gives Robert detailed instructions on what to eat, what to wear and even whether to have sex with his wife, who’s played by Hong Chau.

Everything Robert owns, including his house and his car, was given to him by Raymond. When Robert finally refuses to follow one of Raymond’s orders — let’s just say it involves killing somebody — he is promptly fired for his disloyalty. The rest of the story follows Robert as he struggles to get back into Raymond’s good graces.

Plemons won the Best Actor award for his performance at the recent Cannes Film Festival, and deservedly so; he finds genuine notes of pathos, and of all the actors in the film, his three characters show the most range. In the second story, Plemons plays a gruff cop named Daniel, who’s mourning the presumed death of his marine-biologist wife, Liz, who went missing during a research expedition. But then, miraculously, Liz, played by Emma Stone, is found alive and returns home, though Daniel almost immediately suspects she’s an imposter. The ways in which he tries to trap and expose her are decidedly not for the faint of heart.

By this point it’s clear that Lanthimos is saying something about the human drive to dominate others and the absence of free will. It’s not an original thesis for him; again and again in his movies, he’s reminded us that we’re all controlled by something — whether it’s our jobs, our significant others, our routines, our diets or our religions. The latter is made explicit in the third and most tediously drawn-out story, which revolves around a bizarre cult, led by a couple played by Dafoe and Chau. Stone plays Emily, a high-ranking member of the cult who is excommunicated for violating its strict rules of bodily purity. Her efforts to get back in lead her into ever weirder and nastier situations involving drugging, kidnapping and animal cruelty.

If the theme of Kinds of Kindness is control, the strategy is repetition. Lanthimos doesn’t just recycle the same ideas and the same actors; he also repeats some of the same story beats, whether it’s people plunging into strange sexual situations, people getting in grisly car crashes, you get the idea. Lanthimos is very clever in the way he sets up his patterns and motifs, but I was disappointed by the lack of rigor in his approach; his ideas feel exhausted here, and the exhaustion is contagious.

It’s especially disappointing coming so soon after Poor Things, which, for all its transgressive sex and Frankensteinian weirdness, felt like a unified vision — a work of genuine purpose that got more interesting, not less, as it went on. Kinds of Kindness, by contrast, feels like a lazy and self-admiring riff punctuated by the occasional crude shock, like when one character asks another to chop off their finger and serve it for dinner. Talk about an acquired taste.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.