‘Kinds of Kindness’ Review: Human Power Trio

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Kinds of Kindess, Yorgos Lanthimos' bizarre triptych fable, full of oddball characters, dark humor, and other absurdities.
User Rating: 8

I’m not the first to say this, but there is something humorous about director Yorgos Lanthimos taking a break from his prestige absurdist period comedies (The Favourite, Poor Things) in favor of his penchant for dark (but still absurd) comedy filmmaking. Kinds of Kindness feels more familiar to those who knew Lanthimos from his earlier Greek films Dogtooth and Alps, yet still contains the bizarre theatricality of his first forays into America with The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Deer. Suffice it to say, there’s a major learning curve for those not quite into Lanthimos and co-writer Efthimis Flippou’s idiosyncrasies, but I was fully on board with a return to his brand of pitch-black humor. And what better way to dive back into that well than with a two-and-a-half-hour+ triptych fable.

The first story focuses on a man (Jesse Plemons) attempting to take charge of his life by breaking away from the routines and orders given to him by his powerful boss (Willem Dafoe). Story two finds another man (Plemons, again) feeling suspicious that his previously lost at sea but now returned wife (Emma Stone) is an imposter. The final story focuses on a cultist’s (Stone, again) efforts to find a special individual while also contending with the separation from her family.

See Also: ‘Saltburn’ Review: Higher Class, Cruel Intentions

Anthology films don’t all have to abide by the same rules, so one will wonder if there are connections between these segments, if characters repeat, and if these stories are all even set within the same world. Well, Kinds of Kindness has at least one curious, physical connection shared between each tale, but the film is far more thematically tethered than anything else. These stories all focus on how the characters are both controlled and exhibiting free will.

The complexities of human relationships are a big part of these stories as well, along with their varying forms of perversions (be it sexual, violent, or otherwise), take these ideas to the most extreme levels. Generally, this is done for the sake of the darkly funny payoffs to numerous scenes, but Lanthimos is not beyond achieving a higher mean buried within the shock humor he lays out for the audience. The power dynamics and how they can switch off keep the movie grounded to some degree in a relatable place, despite the oddities exhibited by every character, whether it be dialogue, costume design, or general physicality.

With these concepts in mind, it speaks well to the range of performances given by the performers involved, particularly Plemons and Stone, ostensibly the film’s leads. Plemons, in particular, is doing incredible work here, dialing up the deadpan far beyond his fun supporting role in Game Night to show how well he can carry a weird feature like this. In each segment, he becomes less likable (a word almost useless in this realm of Lanthimos) as we watch him go from desperate to please to paranoid to petty.

The way this film arrives at a push and pull with Plemons’ various characters makes it all the more interesting as well, as Kinds of Kindness is not about to hold anyone’s hand for the sake of letting viewers directly in on the “why” of it all. Instead, whether he’s intensely subservient to Dafoe or making detestable demands on Stone (for…reasons), something is going on within the actor that makes his commitment feel authentic and, therefore, funnier when breaking points are reached.

Stone continues down the path of fearlessness when it comes to her work with Lanthimos. Any sense of vanity is gone when it comes to how she’s choosing to portray these characters (you can just tell that Emily, from the final story, most likely stinks, given the scenario she’s in). With that in mind, as her presence increases over the course of the film, that final segment will likely be references the most (it features another wacky dance for Stone in her director’s film), but the middle segment may feature the most curious of these three performances. Playing someone who was lost at sea and then adding a sense of ambiguity to her legitimacy means adding subtle layers to the straight-man role that many can overlook.

There are other reliable cast members sharing the screen as well, including Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn, and Mamoudou Athie. Dafoe and Margaret Qualley do end up leaving more of an impression, supporting-wise, however, as they are given some of the more offbeat things to do (though Chau’s Aka does have a ridiculous ritual for cleansing members of the cult she leads). Qualley gets to lean into the unexplained absurdity of being involved with Dafoe and appearing and acting a certain way in the first segment, which is funny in and of itself. By the third, she’s playing twins with very opposite personalities, one of which being the most sympathetic character of anyone in the film.

Meanwhile, Dafoe is just clearly entirely on board with the lunacy of Lanthimos’ ways. After playing a version of “What if Dr. Frankenstein Frankenstein’d himself” in Poor Things, Kinds of Kindness offers him the chance to play a towering boss, concerned father, and deviant cult leader. Being the kind of actor that gives his all to the role, if we want to talk about no sense of vanity, Dafoe is so clearly letting his full acting weight take part in this experimental project that I’d be surprised if he was just happy to be asked, regardless of the pay. Here, he plays menacing, sad, anxious, intimidating, and just plain silly, sometimes within the same scene. If there’s any level of karmic energy that we should be understanding about how these characters connect, I found it very easy to see when it came to what Dafoe is pulling off.

As of this time, it’s hard to go the route of narrowing down which short I preferred most or if this format should have been removed in favor of extending one of the stories. For a near-3-hour feature riding on the momentum of offbeat humor punctuated by Jerskin Fendrix’s ridiculous yet appropriate score, I found the pacing to never miss a step as far as keeping me involved. Ultimately, while I have no doubts mileage will vary on how much some appreciate what Kinds of Kindness has to offer, there is a sense of discovery with something so deliberately out there as this that I was happy and willing to go along this journey, and was met with a weird sense of elation throughout, even when the movie angled toward its darkest of ideas. I guess I can just agree with how Lanthimos pulls the strings.

Kinds of Kindness opens in select theaters on June 21, 2024, and expands on June 28.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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