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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Kinds of Kindness': Yorgos Lanthimos Returns to His Roots with a Twisted, Cruel Anthology Film

Considering that Yorgos Lanthimos has only recently become more well-known thanks to his films The Favourite and Poor Things, it is fair to say that a certain percent of filmgoers might not be familiar with his early work. His past two films have been a bit more comedic on their face and have an eye-catching visual flair, this is not fully indicative of the rest of his filmography. Lanthimos’s career began with him working in experimental theatre and making short films and commercials before moving on to feature films. His international breakthrough, Dogtooth, established a style that he would use for his next few films, due in part to his collaboration with screenwriter Efthimis Filippou. Dogtooth, as well as his later films such as Alps, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer feature stilted line deliveries, unsettling subject matter, and an unusual sense of humor. While there is a certain degree of these elements in The Favourite and Poor Things, these films ease off the darker edge of Lanthimos’s earlier work, mostly because he and Filippou didn’t write the screenplays for either of them. As a result, these two films provide a somewhat more palatable version of Lanthimos’s style, leading some to think that this is more of the realm that he will be operating in going forward.

But with his newest film, Kinds of Kindness, Lanthimos reunites with Filippou and returns to the acidic nature of his early work. The film has been described as a “triptych fable”, giving viewers three separate stories dealing with themes of power, control, human relationships, and morality, all told through the lens of Lanthimos and Filippou’s oeuvre. Each story has the trademarks of Lanthimos’s early films, but leans more into absurdity. The film serves as a twofold test for Lanthimos, as it begs the question of whether or not he can come home again, as well as whether or not audiences will accept this darker side of him. When it comes to the former, the answer is mostly “Yes”, as he slips back into his old style smoothly, even if it does feel slightly affected by his recent output. For the latter, I would be surprised if he gains any new fans from this film, as it is rather dark and disturbing, and seems guaranteed to repulse most viewers. Those who are a fan of Lanthimos’s other work, will probably be more favorable towards it, but may feel that the anthology format does limit the film a fair amount. Either way, Kinds of Kindness is a polarizing, rather mean-spirited film that plays into the classic Lanthimos style, for better or worse.

Divided into three stories, the film essentially feels like three short films that have been stitched together. The first, titled The Death of R.M.F., follows a man named Robert (Jesse Plemons) whose boss (Willem Dafoe) plans every aspect of his life. When Robert breaks ever so slightly from the meticulous schedule to take control of his own life, he finds himself in disarray. The second, R.M.F. is Flying, sees police officer Daniel (Jesse Plemons) reunited with his wife, Liz (Emma Stone), after she has gone missing. However, he finds that her interests and demeanor has changed, and begins to worry that she is an imposter. The final story, R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich, centers on Emily (Emma Stone), a member of a strange cult who has been tasked with searching for a woman with the power to resurrect the dead. Things become complicated when her past interferes in her life just as she thinks she may have finally found who she’s looking for. All three stories touch on devotion, love, and of course, kindness, all injected with a healthy dose of misanthropy.

All three stories are weird, to say the least, which may be off-putting in itself to some viewers. The basic premises themselves are strange, but there are details within each story that range from odd to deeply upsetting. The film steadily builds in this regard, with each story featuring increasingly more disturbing content. The first story is perhaps the least troublesome of the three, and even that one has some stuff that some viewers might find objectionable. But the other two stories have things in them that could possibly be too much for some viewers, largely due to the violence and cruelty that takes place within them. Even knowing that some of this is par for the course in Lanthimos and Filippou’s other films, I was still a little surprised by how dark this film gets. They balance it with their off-beat sense of humor, but the tone they strike in certain moments feels a bit uneven. It feels a bit clumsy compared to how well they balance humor and horror in films like Dogtooth or The Lobster, but it still gets rather close to the efficacy of those films. 

Anthology films are a tricky beast, as they often get held back by their structure. Most anthology films can feel a bit repetitive, as it feels like we are watching several short stories instead of one full-length narrative. Even the best of these types of movies suffer from this to an extent, as they often lack the satisfaction that comes from watching a standard feature film. Kinds of Kindness is not immune to this, as the stories themselves are very loosely connected. There is no framing device that ties them together, but they still share some commonalities. One of these is the appearance of a character known as R.M.F., played by Yorgos Stefanakos, who is the only character in the film to appear in all three stories. Beyond that, each story explores power dynamics in relationships, as well as what happens when devotion to those relationships is tested. There is also a seemingly insurmountable task that a character is faced with in each story, which drives each segment, and plays into the themes of power and love quite well. Furthermore, there is a distinct act of “kindness” (hence the film’s title) that each story has. These acts might be quite horrific, it still is read as an act of kindness and devotion in the context of the relationship in the story. I am still piecing some of the specifics of these acts together, and might need further analysis and another viewing of the film to get into the nooks and crannies of this aspect, but it is still one of the more fascinating parts of the film. 

While some of the film’s ideas are interesting, I will concede that some of them aren’t fully realized. This is an unfortunate feature of some of Lanthimos and Filippou’s work, as they tend to have a lot of rich thematic ideas, but don’t always know how to execute them to the fullest. Their success rate varies from film to film, but this is perhaps one of the spottier ones on this front. Some of this could be that I need more time and maybe another viewing to process certain parts of the film, which is pretty standard for a Lanthimos film. But that said, even the stuff that is easily comprehensible is a bit hit or miss. I have to hand it to them for trying to pull off what they are going for here, but I wish that it worked better than it does here. In addition, I feel that each story on its own is written quite well, but I don’t know if they fully work well as a triptych. I am inclined to say that it kind of works, but part of me wonders if they would have fared better as three short films, or if Lanthimos and Filippou were to just take one idea and expand it to feature length. I couldn’t help but want a little more from each story, especially the last one, which feels the most lacking of the three. The first two are strong, yet flawed, while the third one kind of spins its wheels in a couple of places and is a bit unfocused. I can appreciate what Lanthimos is going for, both in each story and with the film as a whole, but there is certainly some room for improvement here.

While the film stumbles in terms of substance, it definitely has plenty of visual style. Most of the Lanthimos/Filippou films have a cooler, almost washed out quality to their color palettes, but this film is a bit more colorful and has more of a crisp, almost vibrant aesthetic. Part of this feels influenced by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who lensed Lanthimos’s previous two films and introduced new visual features to his work. While Ryan doesn’t utilize the fish-eye lens of The Favourite or the more flashy camera techniques of Poor Things, he does compose the shots of this film incredibly well. There is a simplicity to his work here that is a bit surprising given his previous collaborations with Lanthimos, but it works well for the film. The way he moves the camera is quite effective, however, as is the composition of many shots in the film. It is a bit reminiscent of Lanthimos’s early films, with their somewhat unorthodox staging, but is filtered through Ryan’s eye to build a bridge between those films and his more recent ones. Not to mention the use of black-and-white photography is well deployed, and the film’s editing is quite strong as well. The film might be difficult to watch due its content, but it is hard to look away due to how good it looks. 

Perhaps the biggest draw of the film is its ensemble, most of whom take on multiple roles throughout the film. Many of their roles vary, as some of the actors might only have a brief appearance in one story, and are a key player in another. The only actors who have lead roles across the three stories are Jesse Plemons and Emma Stone, with the rest of the ensemble taking on supporting roles. Plemons has long been one of my favorite actors, and as a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos, it is quite exciting to see the two working together. I’d argue that he is the strongest player in this particular film, as all three of his performances are so distinct and so lived in. He has this quiet, yet powerful energy about him that he uses in different ways across the stories, coming across as pathetic, intimidating, or mysterious depending on what the story calls for. He is so great throughout the entire film, and is such a great fit for Lanthimos’s distinct style.

Emma Stone has become one of Lanthimos’s most frequent collaborators, and is a reliably strong presence in each of his films. She clearly relishes the freedom that his films afford her, and this allows her performances to have more of an impact as a result. She demonstrates this in this film, and is quite good throughout. Stone doesn’t have as much to do in the first story, but still does good work there. The other two are much showier by comparison, and act as more of  a showcase for her talent. While I would argue that her work in The Favourite and Poor Things is better than her work here, I still really enjoyed what she does in this film. She goes to some darker places in this film, and handles it well. Her and Lanthimos have become one of my favorite actor/director combos, and even though this particular outing might not be their most successful, they are both such a great pair that it makes up for some of their shortcomings. 

The rest of the cast is solid, and they all get at least one moment to shine in this film. Willem Dafoe is excellent as usual, and might be the best supporting performance across all three stories. The first and last ones see him taking on a role with a higher status, albeit in much different contexts, and he nails the specificity of both characters. The second story sees him in a more grounded role, but he has these moments with Emma Stone’s character that make a decent impact. Hong Chau is a bit underused, in my opinion, and I really hope she gets another chance to work with Lanthimos in the future. Her energy feels like a good match for his style, but we only get brief glimpses of what they could create together. Chau is such a wonderfully versatile performer, and while she makes the best of what she gets here, I wanted to see more from her. Mamoudou Athie is in a similar boat, but he is still used rather well in this film. He does have even less to do here than Chau, however, and I just wanted to see him do a little more. Margaret Qualley, on the other hand, is great throughout, especially in the last story which sees her playing twins. Qualley shows a bit of her range here, and adds quite a bit to her characters. She takes these roles in the film that could have been kind of forgettable and brings her own energy to them, which in turn elevates them a bit. The ensemble still manages to do good work, and all fit into Lanthimos’s world so well. 

Kinds of Kindness is a bit of a let down compared to Yorgos Lanthimos’s recent output, but there are still plenty of great things about it. If nothing else, it is fascinating to see him return to the darker sensibilities that dominated his early work, and this film shows that he still has the ability to tread that more acidic territory fairly well. Perhaps if he used those skills in a standard film format as opposed to an anthology film, I would be a little more favorable towards Kinds of Kindness. As is, however, the structure does rob it of feeling cohesive, and the ideas that Lanthimos and Filippou are wrestling with do come across a bit muddled. It is quite possible that this film might grow on me or become clearer with a second viewing, which has happened to me with some of Lanthimos’s other films, like Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but on first viewing, I’m left feeling slightly disappointed, despite appreciating a lot of the craft on display. I still like quite a lot of things about the film, but compared to the rest of Lanthimos’s filmography, this does pale a bit in comparison. I have a hard time seeing viewers getting on board with this film, given how cruel and disturbing it gets, but those who are fans of Yorgos Lanthimos will likely find quite a bit to appreciate about this film, even if it doesn’t quite stack up to the rest of his filmography.

Rating: 3.5/5

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