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Kinds of Kindness (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2024)

Aesop, the ur-fabulist of ancient Greece, built a genre upon anthropomorphizing animals and sculpting whimsy into moral code. Yorgos Lanthimos, the absurdist auteur of contemporary Greece, takes an inverse route: the director’s films bestialize humans, finding banal horror in the ways moral and social conventions can either unleash or muzzle our primal impulses. In 2009’s Dogtooth, Lanthimos’s breakout, a father raises his children with canine tendencies, while in 2015’s The Lobster, those who fail to mate monogamously are forcibly turned into animals. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) finds Lanthimos and his frequent co-writer Efthimis Filippou reimagining the Euripidean tragedy of Iphigenia in contemporary America: they reframe Agamemnon’s killing of the titular woodland creature as an open-heart surgeon’s fatal mistake, leading to a mythic curse that can only be lifted with the disfiguration of the American nuclear family.

Described by distributor Searchlight Pictures as a “triptych fable,” Kinds of Kindness, also co-written with Filippou, applies Lanthimos’s bloodless style and bloody fixations to the Aesopian form to tell another tale of human authority and obedience. Filmed in New Orleans, Kinds of Kindness makes a point of draining even that thick swamp of its folkloric and aesthetic vitality. Here, the Crescent City is just a place with a hospital, a bar, an office, some mansions, and a motel. Similarly, cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s distancing, overlong master shots; Jerskin Fendrix’s score, which opens with a choral swarm; and a color scheme that floats between chilly fluorescence and warm jaundice render the film’s take on fabulism in shades of mundanity and staleness.

The first two chapters of the film center characters played by the poet laureate of the pathetic, Jesse Plemons, who won the Best Actor prize for the film at Cannes; the third brings Emma Stone, a skilled muse for Lanthimos’s alloy of the deadpan and savage, to the fore. Rounding out the ensemble are Willem Dafoe (playing a series of eroticized patriarchal figures), Hong Chau (moving between cog and operator of various social machines), Margaret Qualley (wired and hollow, in classic Lanthimos acting fashion), Mamoudou Athie (whose out-of-place normalcy turns out to be the perfect setup for a pornographic punch line in the second act), and Joe Alwyn (innocuous until he isn’t). Lanthimos conscripts some of today’s most idiosyncratic actors into the style he’s cultivated in his work with Filippou, in which characters seem to be one degree deader than human temperature. Barbarism seems always to be paired with barbiturates.

The Holy Motors–esque “The Death of R.M.F.” is the first and cleverest chapter. The narrative follows Plemons as Robert, a vision of the white-collar American generic: a white man in his late thirties, dutiful to his nondescript skyscraper job, with a support system wife, a mid-century house, and a set breakfast routine featuring freshly squeezed OJ. The key distinguishing oddity—though in a way the most realistic element, given the nightmare of work/life balance in America—is that his boss is his God. Dafoe is a veteran at embodying such personal deities: in Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse (2019), he was both a flatulent wickie and an avatar of Poseidon; in Lanthimos’s previous film, Poor Things (2023), he played a bubble-belching scientist implanting a pregnant corpse with the brain of its unborn fetus.

Via the delivery of scribbled notes, Dafoe’s Raymond commands every aspect of Robert’s life—from sock choices to juice regime, from literary diet to sexual routines. His grand design culminates in a command that gives Robert pause: to crash his car into a midnight-blue BMW (driven by the titular R.M.F., played by Yorgos Stefanakos—a recurring Greek presence hovering in Kindness’s numb American mythosphere). “The driver of the other vehicle is fine with losing his life; he’s agreed to it, in fact,” states Raymond, matter-of-factly. No reason is given. This is the scripture he’s written for Robert’s life. The title of every chapter is a kind of scripture, too: “The Death of R.M.F.” is a foregone conclusion, a parody of the human tendency to enact inevitability by marching toward what we are told is fated.

In the second chapter, “R.M.F. Is Flying,” Plemons is Daniel, a cop whose seafaring wife, Liz (Stone), went missing, and has just returned from the island she was stranded on. But she now has a new shoe size, a sudden taste for chocolate (previously anathema to her), and an inability to recall Daniel’s favorite song. Does the island, which she alleges is governed by dogs, spit out doppelgängers à la Area X from Annihilation (2018)? Suspicious of the newly arrived woman’s Liz-ness, Daniel tests her with various demands of self-mutilation. If these two chapters locate cultishness in the general human condition, then the third literalizes the theme. In “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich,” Plemons and Stone play acolytes of a cult led by Omi (Dafoe, transformed into sex god by eyeliner) and Aka (Chau as his second-in-command). They are tasked with finding a resurrectionist, a chosen woman who fits a set of arbitrarily specific criteria (for instance: must have a dead identical twin). Stone is now the protagonist, and her character’s vacillations between control and flailing obsequiousness recall her virtuosic performance in Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s Showtime series The Curse, in which she plays a real-estate heiress desperate to be seen as a do-gooder—and to capitalize on that, too.

Kinds of Kindness is no Boschian triptych: no zoomorphic demons prod or impale the disobedient humans in Lanthimos’s hellscape. The humans are too busy doing that to themselves, desperate to belong to any overlord who will have them, and amassing a heap of mangled bodies along the way. The director’s arch misanthropy sometimes veers into shtick, like when Stone performs a victory dance next to an incapacitated veterinarian in the middle of the third act’s climax. Zany dance now seems like a clichéd visual catchphrase in Lanthimos’s work, in much the way that, say, Austin Powers in Goldmember might quote The Spy Who Shagged Me. This feeling of self-impersonation is amplified by the film’s presentation as three repetitive fables: the first chapter is at times exhilarating and even propulsive, and the second boasts some inspired sight gags, but by the time the third comes around, the film’s original title, AND, begins to feel like a threat.

Yet for all its faults, it’s still a refreshing far cry from Poor Things, Lanthimos’s macabre picaresque about “a yassified Frankenstein’s monster named Bella Baxter” (per Beatrice Loayza in Film Comment), which amplified the ridiculousness of gender roles through a bombardment of grotesque whimsy. Kinds of Kindness’s characters travel along paths drawn by dogma, but the film itself does not. In an era of American cinema in which the moral inner workings of films bypass subtext and go straight to thesis, the obscuring of a digestible lesson does feel somewhat rewarding. But in taking the message out of the fable, a form that already lacks human interiority, Lanthimos is often merely left to point from a distance, like a sadistic Björk, at obvious facets of “human behavior.” For all its clever gags about sheeplike compliance and monstrous control, the film has little to say more than: “There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic.”

Moze Halperin is a Brooklyn-based critic and playwright.