Friday, June 28, 2024


“Some of them want to use you / Some of them want to get used by you / Some of them want to abuse you / Some of them want to be abused”
— Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”

“This were kindness?”
The Merchant of Venice (1.3.154)

For anyone worried that Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos was drifting to the mainstream with his awards feted, and surprise box office hits, The Favourite and Poor Things, here’s Kinds of Kindness to most fully expose that bleeding heart of darkness within his works. Not that those other films aren’t wild with vulgarity and explicitness, too, but they were packaged in aesthetically pleasing historical intrigue or flights of fancy, respectively. Kindness is colder, slower, less immediately narratively legible, and without even the slightest hint of appealing character motives. That’s what makes it so compelling, too. One watches it trying to figure it out, and it's structured to keep slipping away. It’s fitting that it begins by blasting the iconic driving synths of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” as the movie is about people used and abused, in darkly comedic and deadpan absurd stories in which everyone is looking for something, and in which reality seems to take on the logic of an inscrutable dream. Lanthimos pins down his characters in clinically precise widescreen frames, and then spins out the surreal plot turns, scripted with his Killing of a Sacred Deer co-writer Efthimis Filippou. He does so with an unblinking, mannered realism, dialing back the style and coaxing underplayed reactions just when the stories are aching for excess.

As the characters wriggle their ways through the emotional and physical pain of their plots, the movie becomes a caustic acid bath of cynicism, watching toxic people give into base impulses, and work their wicked ways. The film is made up of three short films, each nearly an hour long and starring the same ensemble. Each tale would undoubtedly test the patience at feature length, each take a sick joke inside a sick joke that starts strange, grows even stranger, and then ends on its bleakest, gnarliest punchline. The first finds a businessman (Jesse Plemons) totally controlled by his boss (Willem Dafoe) and the old man’s mistresses (Emma Stone and Margaret Qualley), down to the food he eats and whether or not his wife (Hong Chau) will get pregnant. When he finds himself doubting his commitment to his latest grotesque task, his life instantly changes for the worse. The second story finds Plemons as a police officer whose wife (Stone) has been missing at sea. It’s odd enough that in his grief he invites their friends (Qualley and Mamoudou Athie) over to watch their sex tape; odder still is how he reacts when his wife is eventually discovered. Lastly, we find Stone and Plemons looking for a Chosen One at the behest of a cult leader (Dafoe) and his wife (Chau). It becomes a sort of desperate ritual as it goes on.

In each story, the cast is so good at inhabiting these extreme situations of sex and violence with shrugging acceptance that the bubbling surreality is played out quite naturally—subtext and text dancing with extreme literalness, down to the black-and-white flashes of dreams and visions that mingle with their mindsets. These characters are constantly doing acts of a selfish sort of kindness, casually blowing up lives, behaving as dangers to themselves and others. If this were kindness, who needs cruelty? Here’s a movie with a pretty low opinion of human behavior that’s as darkly upsetting as it is grimly funny, in a preposterous string of circumstances held in the grip of skilled filmmakers making each moment count. Lanthimos using the same faces in new roles uses each switch of the narrative to recombine them into dynamics of freedom and control, power and submission, responsibility and individualism. These characters keeps slamming into illusions they’ve created to make sense of lives spiraling out of control—often of their own doing. The bruising absurdism of each accumulates into the sickest joke of all: sometimes the only kindness is to give into the absurdity of your circumstances and hope for the best.

As an aside—how wild is it to think back to 2010, when Stone’s Easy A was a satisfying comedy that confirmed her a star and Lanthimos’ nasty, explicit Dogtooth got a surprise Academy Award nomination for foreign-language film. Imagine telling us moviegoers back then that those two would bring out the best in each other.

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