Yorgos Lanthimos Is a Cruel God in Kinds of Kindness (2024) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Kinds of Kindness (2024) feels like an in-joke between Yorgos Lanthimos and the actors, or perhaps the cinematic equivalent of a shitpost. This comparison isn't meant as a negative critique; conversely, this film is one of his most mean and droll works in years, prompting comparison to his earlier films such as Dogtooth (2009) or The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). Lanthimos has assembled a fantastic ensemble cast: Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn, Mamoudou Athie, Yorgos Stefanakos, and a cameo from Hunter Schafer. Through three short tales, he remixes these actors, having them embody different roles and connecting them thematically. One character, the mysterious R.M.F. (Yorgos Stefanakos), inhabits the same character in all three stories, serving as a lynchpin for all of them.

"The Death of R.M.F."

The first story concerns a man named Robert (Jesse Plemons), who lets his boss, Raymond (Willem Dafoe), control every single aspect of his life down to what he eats every day and when he is allowed to have sex with his wife Sarah (Hong Chau). Robert seems to enjoy being controlled and is rewarded for his servitude with a beautiful house and lavish gifts from Raymond. One day, however, Raymond orders him to crash his car at an intersection, killing the other driver (who happens to be R.M.F.). Robert fails to kill the other driver, and Raymond is displeased and wants him to try again. Understandably, Robert balks at this request, which causes Raymond to break off their agreement and leave him to his own devices. 

One of the themes running through the stories is the idea of "control," either through controlling others or the urge to be controlled. Robert is emotionally trapped in an abusive relationship with Raymond, and when he is essentially dumped, he spirals into a black hole of self-doubt and anguish. He has lost his identity and follows Raymond around like a sick puppy, begging for attention and acknowledgment. On paper, this sounds tragic, but in true Lanthimos fashion, it is played off as a dark joke. Robert desperately tries to reenact the bizarre requests that Raymond has given him over the years to replicate his former life, but without the context of that relationship, he looks pitiful and silly. 

This is the best and shortest trio of stories, and Plemons is simultaneously depressing and hilarious, putting himself through a gauntlet of embarrassing situations to win back the "love" of his boss. Dafoe's over-the-top performance as Raymond is off-putting and sometimes sinister, but he keeps the character's true motivations a secret. The ending is heartwarming in a sick way; maybe the closest Lanthimos has ever come to a happy ending.

"R.M.F. is Flying"

Daniel (Jesse Plemons) is a police officer who is having trouble concentrating at work because his wife, Liz (Emma Stone), was lost at sea after a helicopter crash (piloted by none other than R.M.F.). Fortunately, she is eventually found, leading to a tearful homecoming, but something about her seems off to Daniel, something he can't quite put his finger on. Is Liz an imposter, or has Daniel lost his mind?

Again, Lanthimos tackles the concept of control, this time through Daniel being controlled by his delusions and by his asserting control over Liz, asking her to do increasingly disturbing acts to prove her love for him. It is interesting how Plemons plays the polar opposite of his character in the previous short; where Robert was weak and sniveling, Daniel is calm and collected for the most part. Stone is dialed back and understated, playing a woman who just wants to return to her life after a traumatic event and who is further tortured by her mentally ill husband. 

When she survives the helicopter crash, there are allusions to some cannibalism on her part, which is echoed in Daniel's requests that she cut pieces off her body and cook them for him. Liz is willing to give herself figuratively and literally to the relationship. This vignette is more abstract and surreal, incorporating a ridiculous smash cut to anthropomorphic dogs and an abrupt ending. At this point, Lanthimos might be fucking around and not taking everything seriously.

"R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich"

Although this is the longest and most unfocused of the tales, Lanthimos still manages to explore themes of control and co-dependency, this time through the lens of a cult. Emily (Emma Stone) and Andrew (Jesse Plemons) are members of a cult who believe that humanity is being "contaminated" by the water they drink. They provide specially blessed water that is safe to drink, and those who remain unsullied are free to live on the compound and have a whole bunch of unprotected sex with the leaders Omi (Willem Dafoe) and Aka (Hong Chau). Emily left her husband and young daughter to join the cult and is also on a mission to find a set of twins she dreamed about (played by Margaret Qualley). One of the twins supposedly has the power to bring the dead back to life, and Emily wants to use her power to revive R.M.F., who is in the morgue, presumably after the events of The Death of R.M.F.

Emma Stone has the most prominent role in this final story, flexing her chops in that quirky and unpredictable way we all love. She is single-minded and intelligent, reinforcing that intellect can't always protect someone from being manipulated if they are in a specific frame of mind. Cults often target isolated or traumatized people, and after a near-death experience, Emily is ripe to be influenced. The humor is dialed back a bit, and the story dives into deeper and darker waters, exploring the ramifications of sexual assault and self-blame as well as toxic positivity.

The presence of R.M.F. in all three stories and the non sequitur sequence of him eating a sandwich in the coda leads me to believe he could be a stand-in for Lanthimos himself. The coincidence of the actor who plays R.M.F. being named Yorgos aside, he also seems to be a divine figure of sorts, even dying and being reborn as is so common in these myths. Lanthimos is the God of these stories as well, an all-seeing and ultimately cruel master who creates these characters and puts them through the wringer. After he is done with them, he can relax and bathe in the adulation from the critics, maybe pour himself a glass of wine. His creations are powerless to stop him, and we get off on watching them suffer, which might be the most disturbing thing of all.

--Michelle Kisner