With ‘Kinds of Kindness,’ Yorgos Lanthimos Perfects the Language of Cruelty

This review of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kinds of Kindness DOES NOT contain spoilers.


Those who are familiar with Yorgos Lanthimos’s Greek-language films, Alps and Dogtooth in particular, and with the work he did in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster know he’s made most of his living subjecting filmgoers to brutality after brutality with an overwhelming dose of ironical dark humor.

In the Lanthimos universe (which is often a direct reflection of our reality), characters commit acts of violence, desperation, adoration, and ferocity inside of an absurdist haze — one that informs everything from the films’ scores to the way the narratives are propelled to the deliveries of the characters’ deadpan dialogue — and Lanthimos rarely takes it upon himself to be the judge of their actions. To a certain extent, it never seems as if he’s expecting us to either. Here, the dichotomy of “good” and “bad,” “virtuous” and “evil” are not necessarily nonexistent; they usually just don’t matter very much. The characters, for all of their disparate understandings of the worlds around them, never seem to know what they’re doing. But that’s not to say they aren’t sure they do. Lanthimos and his collaborator on those earlier films, Efthimis Filippou, use his latest film Kinds of Kindness to take us back to these examinations through three technically unrelated narratives set within the same time and space featuring a cast of actors rotating through the different roles of each story.

“The Death of R.M.F.” focuses on Robert (Jesse Plemons) and his psychosexual relationship with his boss, Raymond (Willem Defoe). Raymond controls everything Robert does: He chooses his clothes, what he eats every day, what he reads, how he does his hair, where he can go and not go. He even dictates when Robert is allowed to have sex with his wife, Sarah (Hong Chau). And Robert doesn’t just listen, he reverently goes along with all of it, as if Raymond is a god whose grace he wants more than anything else in the world. When Robert finally does defy one of Raymond’s most difficult propositions, Raymond discards him and Robert is left to either fall back in line or face his life outside of Raymond’s orbit and without Raymond’s affection.

In “R.M.F. is Flying,” Daniel (Jesse Plemons) is a police officer whose marine-biologist wife, Liz (Emma Stone), has gone missing on a recent research trip. After an unspecified but lengthy search and rescue mission, Liz is returned home but to Daniel’s great dismay, he’s convinced she’s an imposter posing as Liz. Through Daniel’s delusion, Liz attempts and fails to try to please him any way she can until he takes it upon himself to begin making demands of her, each one more gruesome than the last.

The final installment, “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich” takes us in a larger web of interpersonal hostility. Emily (Emma Stone) and Andrew (Jesse Plemons) are the obedient foot soldiers of sex cult leaders, Omi (Willem Defoe) and Aka (Hong Chau). According to Omi and Aka, there exists a woman — with extremely precise characteristics and life circumstances — who is able to bring the dead back to life. Emily and Andrew are tasked with finding her and bringing her back to the cult compound. On their trips outside of the compound, Emily sneaks off to the home of her former husband, Joseph (Joe Alwyn), and her daughter (Merah Benoit), whom the couple only refer to as the “Little One.” When one of these visits goes awry (and Joseph commits what is arguably the most fucked up act of violence in the whole film), Emily is exiled from the cult and takes it upon herself to continue Omi and Aka’s search, hoping to end her exile and regain Omi and Aka’s love.

The acting in all three vignettes is exactly as masterful as you’d expect. Although Plemmons has never worked with Lanthimos before, his ability to entirely inhabit the emotional inner worlds of these three distinct roles while staying true to the stony deliveries Lanthimos requires of his characters is the stand out. But Stone, Defoe, and Chau deliver equally measured performances, giving some of the most harrowing, humiliating, and callous characters of the film a sense of legitimacy that might not be accomplished otherwise. Margaret Qualley and Mamoudou Athie (another Lanthimos universe newcomer) play different side characters in all three stories and are also unwavering in their dedication to playing their characters in line with Lanthimos’s vision and within the confines of their limited interactions with other characters. Additionally, Hunter Schaefer’s straight-faced and hilarious turn in her brief appearance as a woman entirely convinced she’s the one with resurrection powers that Emily (Stone) and Andrew (Plemmons) in the last film in the anthology helps set an unsettling and darkly humorous tone for the rest of the fim that isn’t shaken off until the very end.

Hunter Schafer in Kinds of Kindness

While the stories are disconnected by their plots, specific locations, and the characters they feature, they’re connected by Lanthimos and Filippou’s collective obsession of showing us the darkest parts of our humanity and reminding us of the absurdity of living and taking in part in the world as we currently know it. Through each narrative, all of these characters exist simultaneously as in power and out of power, and when they’re out, they’ll stop at nothing — even drugging, killing, maiming, raping others, or some combination therein — to get back in. And although it might be easy to assume it’s just power these characters want, in typical Lanthimos/Filippou fashion, the truth is that these characters want what they think power will bring them: love, acceptance, desirability, and a feeling close to the divine, of having closeness to something holier and more important than they are. The three stories in Kinds of Kindness examine this as thoroughly as any of their other works. They reflect the parts of our humanity that we try to ignore, destroy, and, in the worst circumstances, distort in order to feel better about ourselves. They show us how depraved we become when we’re driven by the desire to mean something to someone.

Systems are to blame for the failings of our society, of course, but instead of pretending that this truth isn’t full of nuance, Lanthimos and Filippou plumb the depths of its nuances to create a much truer illustration of our roles as individuals within these systems. Cruelty is often not only the point, but it is the singular characteristic that helps move all of these worlds forward. The guiding principles of Lanthimos and Filippou’s previous films and of Kinds of Kindness can be broken down in three acts: First, we’re reminded we live in an absurd world governed by ludicrous and arbitrary rules that many follow without question; second, this leads many people to develop a deep sadness and anger about the world around them and the people in it; and third, this sadness and anger generates inevitably inhumane conditions for living that people perpetuate through interpersonal cruelty. These characters aren’t innocent or “good,” obviously. But because of their specific motivations, they can’t exactly be mapped onto the other side of the binary, either. They simply cannot outrun their fallibility as humans trying to find their places inside of a ruined and ruinous society that works for almost no one.

Kinds of Kindness magnifies these ideas by splintering them across three distinct pieces, each one delivering a blow that’s even more shocking than last. In 45 to 60 minute bursts of ruthlessly depicted atrocities, Lanthimos and Filippou elucidate the most wretched aspects of our individual and shared humanity, which is part of what makes these films so uncomfortable and isolating for audiences of all kinds. Living within this ruined and ruinous society where our struggles for warmth and approval from others bring us literally and figuratively to our knees often turns us into people we never thought we would be or could be. We become desperate, pathetic, and sometimes even barbarous and merciless in our attempts to recover these feelings that our society has turned into a commodity only a few can afford without turning on themselves and the people around them. What makes the stories in Kinds of Kindness particularly discomfiting is the fact that among these ruins and throughout all of the violence, these characters truly believe they are performing fairly harmless “acts of service” that will eventually bring them into the light of grace they so badly want and feel entitled to.

That’s part of what makes Kinds of Kindness and the other earlier Lanthimos and Filippou films so difficult to watch apart from their grotesque and gory presentations of violence and sexual violence. But I’ve never been convinced they just want us to sit in that discomfort until we can’t anymore. Many artists and creators across all mediums traffic in the language of cruelty to varying degrees of success, but these works are proof that Lanthimos and Filippou understand the nature of the most common cruelties we experience more than many others. Their work isn’t horrific just for the sake of it. Their work emphasizes those cruelties as being part of a larger web of real and perceived interpersonal injustices and personal desolations that drive us to do unspeakable things to ourselves and one another.

Lanthimos and Filippou’s films, including Kinds of Kindness, are intriguing precisely because contrary to how people might feel coming out of the theater, they’re not meant to make us feel like shit. They’re meant to make us feel less alone in our hopeless thrashing against a network of systems designed specifically to tear us apart from the more productive and positive aspects of our humanity and from others who are experiencing the same despair. The ridiculous and farcical endings of each of the stories in Kinds of Kindness bring this home even further. We can do whatever we want in service of gaining the power, admiration, and reverence we think we deserve, but the rules governing our world remain the same until we change them entirely. And at some point, we’re going to be right back in that same position, ceaselessly drudging through the muck of our unfulfilled desires without an end in sight.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 95 articles for us.

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