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Kinds of Kindness

After the comparatively “normal” visions of “The Favourite” and “Poor Things,” Yorgos Lanthimos is back in provocateur mode. Working more in the vein of his earlier, more surreal flicks like “The Lobster,” “Dogtooth” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer," the filmmaker's latest reunites him with Efthimis Filippou, the co-writer of those movies, to deliver a study on the many facets of control: How we claim to fight against but often return to it, and how often it limits our ability to live satisfying lives. 

“Kinds of Kindness” overflows with ideas, giving the project the feel of three films that Lanthimos and Filippou couldn’t quite flesh out to feature-length. So, seemingly, they decided to cram them together into a nearly three-hour anthology. Conversations about what ties the films together thematically may end in frustration. Still, the one thing that undeniably unites them is Lanthimos’ mastery of tone, making another film that’s alternately hysterical and terrifying, even when it puts up walls against interpretation. The anthology nature of the project brings to mind the theory that if you try to make two (or in this case, three) movies, you’re not making one cohesive one. Still, the audacity of the project carries the day, and a cast once again bringing their A-game for a director who knows how to work with ensembles. 

The first of three films within a film is playful even in its title: “The Death of R.M.F.” It’s not long before one realizes a few character’s initials could fit that monogram, and starts to wonder who it refers to, even with the introduction of a character with them on his chest. It could be him, but Lanthimos likes to keep us our toes, so it's no coincidence our protagonist is named Robert Fletcher (Jesse Plemons), the corporate lackey who follows every order from his boss, Raymond (Willem Dafoe). Like most Lanthimos projects, the filmmaker takes a relatable concept and pushes it to theatrical extremes to make his point. You think your boss is controlling? Raymond tells Robert what to do with nearly every minute of his day, including when to eat and when to make love to his wife Sarah (Hong Chau). Because of how it would impact his workflow, he’s even forcing Robert into drugging his wife to miscarry so they will remain childless. However, Raymond’s latest order—to murder the man with the initials R.M.F.—finally pushes our protagonist over the edge.

The problems start for Robert when he pushes back on first-degree murder, even though Raymond insists that the victim is willing to go through with it himself. When Robert stands up for himself, his life falls apart, leading him to worry that he’s been replaced in the corporate machine and desperately trying to reclaim his role as a cog within it. Plemons is stellar here, conveying a sort of desperation that comes from adults who have never really had any control over their lives and how drastic change can unmoor a person. Plemons grounds Lanthimos and Filippou’s vision in a relatable, emotional spiral, which helps make “The Death of R.M.F.” the most effective of the three chapters. It’s also the one that grounds the thematic throughline: control and what happens when we lose it. It’s not accidental that Robert and Sarah are gifted one of John McEnroe’s broken tennis rackets and Ayrton Senna’s battered helmet: relics of lost moments of control.

The theme is expanded upon (and arguably muddled a bit) in the center chapter, “R.M.F. is Flying.” Plemons returns in a different register as Daniel, a man who first appears to be drowning in grief after the disappearance of his wife (Emma Stone), presumed lost at sea after a helicopter accident. His obsession with finding her damages his work as a police officer and his friendships. Yet he doesn’t seem happy when she suddenly returns, convincing himself rather quickly that this woman at his door is not actually the missing partner. Daniel keeps pushing her to prove her identity and loyalty to him, leading to increasingly extreme, horrific behavior. “R.M.F. is Flying” feels the least thematically rich and narratively complete of the three films, but Plemons delivers again.

Finally, there’s the rich “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich,” which fans of the film will argue ties everything together under a banner of destruction of autonomy—the controlling boss in the first, the imposter in the second, and now a cult that is attempting to reverse death in the final chapter. Emily (Stone) and Andrew (Plemons) work for that cult run by the mysterious Omi (Dafoe) and his partner Aka (Chau), trying to find an unknown woman who can resurrect the dead. When Emily stumbles onto a person she’s seen in her dreams named Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), she becomes obsessed with proving she’s the one. Even so, she’s drawn back to the home she left behind, including a daughter and a horrifically abusive husband (Joe Alwyn). Again, cults are about control by their very nature, and it’s a playground for Lanthimos to get as weird and disturbing as ever.

While the text of “Kinds of Kindness” is rich enough to unpack in thinkpieces and coffee house conversations, there is a sense that there hasn’t been as much careful consideration of how it all ties together as in some of his best films. Plemons giving not just one but at least two and maybe three of the year's best performances goes a long way to holding “Kinds of Kindness” together. Still, I wondered if there wasn’t a version of this film from before Lanthimos became a renowned master and Oscar nominee that might have been tighter, more refined by the nature of having a little less complete creative freedom. He’s earned no one having control over him. But maybe that’s not always a good thing.

With the Oscars for his last two movies and a likely return to that kind of prestige filmmaking in the future, “Kinds of Kindness” may ultimately be seen as a diversion in what I suspect will be a long career of acclaimed projects. Even if it does end up as a footnote in his career, it’s a reminder that Lanthimos completely lacks in desperation, confident enough in his voice to explore what interests him, whether or not anyone else is along for the ride.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Kinds of Kindness movie poster

Kinds of Kindness (2024)

Rated R

164 minutes

Cast

Emma Stone as Rita / Liz / Emily

Jesse Plemons as Robert / Daniel / Andrew

Willem Dafoe as Raymond / George / Omi

Margaret Qualley as Vivian / Martha / Ruth / Rebecca

Hong Chau as Sarah / Sharon / Aka

Mamoudou Athie as Will / Neil / Morgue Nurse

Joe Alwyn as Collectibles Appraise Man 1 / Jerry / Joseph

Director

Writer

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