The Rules of the Game
By Jourdain Searles

Kinds of Kindness
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, U.S./U.K./Ireland, Searchlight Pictures

There’s an underlying cruelty to Kinds of Kindness that’s impossible to avoid, coupled with an intimidating runtime sure to test the patience of casual filmgoers. While his previous two films, the Oscar-winning The Favourite and Poor Things were darker than the average mainstream American fare, both of those films took place in playful comedic universes where grim moments are relieved by silly ones. Both were also set in the past, providing even more distance between the viewer and the world onscreen. But before the Greek director teamed up with Emma Stone, his films had a distinctly bleak look and feel. His earlier films Dogtooth, Alps, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer are characterized by sterile white interiors, intentionally flat line delivery, and casual brutality.

Like those, Kinds of Kindness has echoes of Michael Haneke, especially in its depiction of troubled family units. The film reunites Lanthimos with his co-writer Efthimis Filippou for the first time since The Killing of a Sacred Deer, bringing back his earlier work’s dry delivery and grim sense of humor, but with A-list stars at the center. Divided into three loosely connected stories with overlapping cast members playing different roles in each, the film offers a series of parables about love and human connection. Each ends on a darker note than the last, and each is followed by a closing credit sequence before the next begins. The first concerns Robert (Jesse Plemons), a man whose entire life is controlled by his boss, Raymond (Willem Dafoe), from what he eats and drinks to when he has sex with his wife, Sarah (Hong Chau). As long as he does whatever Raymond tells him, Robert lives a life of luxury while never having to make his own decisions. But one day Raymond makes a request that Robert can’t fulfill, which leads the comforting pattern of his life to come apart at the seams.

In the second tale, Daniel (Plemons) is a police officer dealing with the mysterious disappearance of his wife, Liz (Emma Stone), whose absence is beginning to affect his work. When Liz finally does return, Daniel is oddly suspicious rather than relieved. His friends Neil (Mamoudou Athie) and Martha (Margaret Qualley) try to placate him, but he’s convinced his wife is an impostor and decides to test his hypothesis. Liz looks the same, and though her behavior differs from her husband’s memory of her, she tries her best to please him. But the kinder she is, the more sinister Daniel becomes, culminating in a bloody turn of events. Plemons excels at playing an emotionally volatile husband, more loyal to the idea of his wife than to the woman standing right in front of him. In response, Stone shrinks herself, allowing Plemons to dominate her character and the film itself.

Plemons, who was awarded Best Actor at Cannes, is the film’s main source of pathos, with Stone carrying the rest of the film’s emotional baggage. Stone’s animated, high-comedy style complements Plemons and his melancholy, yearning eyes. She’s more reined in than she was in her Oscar-winning performance as Bella Baxter, but her manic energy makes a welcome return in the final story. Plemons’s everyman, hangdog quality grounds Kinds of Kindness in an emotional reality, if not a logical one. Dafoe’s presence in each story is that of an authoritative father figure with an almost compulsive need to control the younger people around him. Chau brings the sly charm and ethereal nature she displayed in last year’s Showing Up to each of her characters, with a calmness that borders on intimidating. Qualley is again the playful imp, younger than most of her costars, and yet all three of her characters have wisdom beyond their years. Rounding out the cast is newcomer Athie, who serves as the film’s straight man, the only normal person in a sea of weirdos.

The final—and by far most ambitious—story follows Emily (Stone) and Andrew (Plemons), two cult members tasked with finding a special woman to serve their eccentric leaders Omi (Dafoe) and Aka (Chau). The woman in question must have particular powers and criteria that would make finding her seem impossible. Emily spends every day wearing the same brown suit, driving wildly in her violet sports car, determined to prove her devotion to Omi and Aka, even as her estranged husband Joseph (Joe Alwyn) and young daughter beg her to return home. Alwyn, after playing small, comedic roles in the first two stories, takes a more substantial and sinister turn in the film’s most shocking scene. In a film full of comedic violence, Alwyn here plays a character who commits a violent act that is unmistakably serious, breaks the film from its ironic casing of comedic violence to depict a painfully realistic traumatic experience.

Joseph’s behavior reveals a gendered pattern in Kinds of Kindness that puts women at the mercy of emotionally destructive men and the patriarchal power structures that support them. The first and second story portray relationships in which men control obedient spouses and girlfriends. In addition to Robert and his wife Sara’s life, Raymond also controls his much younger girlfriend, Vivian (Qualley). And in the second story, Liz submits entirely to Daniel, even hitting her father (Dafoe) when he suggests that she could do better. But the third story is where that pattern deviates: Emily’s desire to get away from her husband sends her right into the arms of a cult that isn’t much better for her. Kinds of Kindness presents us with a world of women living at the mercy of petty men. But the men don’t seem to know what they’re doing either. There’s a childlike nature to all the male characters, driven by the desire to get what they want and be respected in order to keep their egos intact.

Much like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Kinds of Kindness frequently registers as a satire of society and the roles we’re each assigned to play. The world these people live in is rarely a forgiving one, but it is consistent in its rules. Lanthimos knows there is order to the universe, with arbitrary boundaries and merciless punishments. Closure is nonexistent and catharsis is death. Once the credits roll, viewers are left to wonder: is Lanthimos making a return to his old style, or is Kinds of Kindness simply an extended comedic exercise before his next lavish fantasy or off-kilter period melodrama? Given the horror undertones present in the film—evoked in its ominous score, populated with chanting and harsh piano chords—Lanthimos makes a strong case for his ability to unsettle an audience even when the actors onscreen are smiling and behaving with upper-middle-class politeness. Kinds of Kindness is funny, audacious, and difficult to define—quite unlike anything else being produced for the big screen in this country.