Yorgos Lanthimos Keeps You Squirming



A submissive office worker lets his boss dictate everything, from what he wears to the woman he marries. In the next segment, the same actor (Jesse Plemons) assumes a different role, playing a cop grieving his wife’s disappearance. When she resurfaces (in the form of Emma Stone), he’s less than enthused when she tries to dominate him in the bedroom. Finally, a woman (also Stone) abandons her marriage to follow a kinky cult leader (Willem Dafoe) who’s ordered her to find an elusive faith healer.

With “Kinds of Kindness,” director Yorgos Lanthimos — a pioneering member of the Greek Weird Wave — serves up a triple helping of strange. After achieving both box office and awards acclaim with “The Favourite” and “Poor Things” (flamboyant literary adaptations, both written by Tony McNamara), the merciless Surrealist does a hard reset, reteaming with “Dogtooth” scribe Efthimis Filippou on several deadpan parodies of control and consent: in the corporate workplace, in marriage, in religion — all realms where people willingly relinquish their power to others. Set in a wonky parallel present where dogs are in charge and death is negotiable, this three-part, nearly three-hour anthology film finds Lanthimos taking a victory lap, with a killer cast and the far richer resources of an American indie studio at his disposal.

The less you know, the more effective “Kinds of Kindness” is likely to be — though you’ll no doubt want to discuss or deconstruct the film after the fact. It’s a quizzical concoction bound to baffle and delight in equal measure, structured so it feels like binge-watching three episodes of a nihilist “Twilight Zone” knock-off, when an interwoven ensemble approach (à la “Magnolia”) might have better supported connection-making between chapters. In any case, Lanthimos trades in discomfort, trusting his audience enough to take his brand of provocation as they please.

Less than a decade ago, the helmer made his English-language debut with “The Lobster,” introducing subtitle-shy American audiences to his dark and somewhat deranged mode of satire. While only a modest success in the U.S., that A24-acquired curio proved an early salvo in a broader trend, which I like to call “bizart-house movies,” as young audiences gravitate to independent films with unpredictable and frequently outrageous elements. In some cases, a single shocking scene will do; in others, the whole dang thing is cuckoo. For a generation that feels like it has seen it all, Lanthimos and his peers (directors such as Ari Aster, Alex Garland and Robert Eggers) offer the promise of surprise.

That is perhaps the only way in which Lanthimos’ latest could be said to satisfy anyone’s expectations: At no point during “Kinds of Kindness” can audiences pretend to anticipate what will happen next. This long, scaldingly original film enthralls even as it frustrates, defying conventional logic while presenting an absurdist riff on modern society. It’s never boring, and yet, Lanthimos’ outré sensibility demands a special brand of patience (not to mention wariness) from viewers, many of whom will come to see Plemons and Stone stretching beyond their respective comfort zones, only to have the same limits tested in themselves.

Stone, who starred in the director’s previous two films, takes a while to appear, leaving audiences to figure out Plemons’ first character, a pathetic corporate lackey named Robert who does as his boss Raymond (Dafoe) tells him, even if that means smashing his shiny new Bronco into a stranger’s car. Raymond rewards Robert’s loyalty with one-of-a-kind sports memorabilia and a generous modern home, which he shares with his wife, Sarah (Hong Chau). For years, Robert has gone along with the arrangement, but this latest request — which is tantamount to manslaughter — is a step too far, forcing him to refuse Raymond’s orders for the first time. Like much of the film, what follows is much funnier on second viewing, as Robert spirals out of control before crawling back to his boss.

What do the various principals in this dynamic represent? Does Raymond embody all bosses, whose expectations shape so much of how the American workforce must behave? Could he be a lawmaker, religious leader or other figure of authority, to whom followers cede their free will? Maybe even a demanding film director? The answer is all of the above and perhaps none at all, as Lanthimos invites us to make what we will of the situation. Unlike “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster,” which provided fairly straightforward critiques of socialization and romantic coupling, respectively, the themes are less clearly defined in this case, making for a blurrier allegory overall. Technically, kindness is offered without thought of reward, whereas these three vignettes are about characters desperately trying to prove their love.

There’s a fair amount of overlap with the second chapter, in which Plemons now plays Daniel, a police officer who hasn’t been the same since his wife, Liz (Stone), went missing. When she miraculously reappears, he becomes convinced that she’s not the same person, and because Lanthimos makes the rules, it’s impossible for audiences to determine whether Daniel is acting rationally. Certainly, his mind games — macabre little tests of Liz’s devotion — would seem cruel in the real world. But when we don’t know how gravity works in this universe, how to interpret his behavior? Again, it’s funnier on subsequent viewings, once we’ve gotten over the initial shock.

Stone assumes a central role in the last chapter, roaring onto the screen in an Otter Pop-purple Dodge Challenger. Her character, Emily, drives like a maniac, but otherwise tows the line of a guru named Omi (a spaced-out Dafoe), who’s tasked her and partner Andrew (Plemons, now mustached) with tracking down an individual with special powers. Omi insists on purity, forbidding his disciples to drink or otherwise expose themselves to “contaminating fluids.” He and his spiritual partner, Aka (Chau), reward the faithful with tantric attention, nourishing them with their tears — or excommunicating them when they stray. As in the first chapter, it hurts to be excluded, which is how cults operate.

With no offense intended to any of the actors who bare all in the film, Lanthimos treats sex (and death) as laughable and absurd. That’s one way of undercutting the importance people place on both, to say nothing of abortion, rape and suicide. His irreverence can be disarming at times, laugh-out-loud funny at others. It’s not clear in the end whether he aims to amuse, alarm or enlighten — quite likely all three. There’s an off-kilter precision to the entire project, heightened by “Poor Things” composer Jerskin Fendrix’s use of discordant pianos and stress-inducing choirs. Meanwhile, DP Robbie Ryan pivots from the trick photography of “Poor Things” to meticulous widescreen compositions, centered on some of New Orleans’ least-scenic locations.

When Lanthimos made “Dogtooth,” audiences may not have picked up on the dry, disaffected way the Greek actors delivered their lines. But now that he’s directing in English, it’s impossible not to notice — or be unnerved by — the way the cast underplay situations that would be wrenching in real life. The exception is Plemons, who evokes a young Philip Seymour Hoffman: His emotional commitment to these three roles is commendable, if on a slightly different wavelength from his mostly blank-faced co-stars. With a total of four parts to her name (including twins), Margaret Qualley has more to do here than she did in “Poor Things,” while Mamoudou Athie (who plays her husband in the second chapter) feels underused.

Lanthimos and longtime editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis strike a rhythm that’s totally distinct from that of other filmmakers, creating tension less from suspense than surprise. Each of the segments abruptly concludes with a Saki-esque twist, before moving on to the next. While certain themes carry over, the only real continuity is the title character of each chapter, R.M.F. (Yorgos Stefanakos), whose shifting status gives a clue to their order. To see him eat a sandwich, stick around through the end credits. And to fully appreciate the dark humor of it all, do yourself a kindness: Buckle up and take the whole ride again.


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