Kinds of Kindness review: Jesse Plemons and Emma Stone lead three dark, playful and absurd films in one

Kinds of Kindness review: Jesse Plemons and Emma Stone lead three dark, playful and absurd films in one

Blood, sweat and tears. Yorgos Lanthimos’s return to his Greek Weird Wave roots is wet with the stuff. Bodily fluids spurt, drip, and dribble with such consistency in Kinds of Kindness that it forces you to reckon more deeply with the phrase – who, exactly, is worthy of our blood, sweat, and tears, a dedication so profound that we’d be willing to shed from our own bodies for it? And what do we expect in return?

Lanthimos’s anthology of three fables is a new way into the director’s old creative obsession with dominance and submission. His work with screenwriter Tony McNamara, on 2018’s The Favourite and 2023’s Poor Things, brought him newfound mainstream acceptance and a shelf full of Oscars. Here, he returns to collaborate with Efthimis Filippou, with whom he co-wrote his 2009 breakout Dogtooth, its follow-up Alps and his first two English-language features: The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

All these films, plus Kinds of Kindness, exist within their own specific fantasy. It’s our world, ruled over and regulated by corporations and bureaucracies, but made oddly and unnervingly generic. There’s no Starbucks, no ExxonMobil. A character might inquire: “Are you at that bar/restaurant often?” It’s all just one big, ugly complex of glass and steel, which cinematographer Robbie Ryan shoots with apprehension. Often, the camera pauses at the threshold. It observes through the doorway, as if taking a full step in might mean we’re never able to leave.

Kinds of Kindness lives in a place equal in ideas and riches to The Favourite or Poor Things’s ruffled luxuries – it’s just not as immediately welcoming to the viewer. We know some of these actors from Lanthimos’s previous work: Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, and Joe Alwyn. Others are new to the family: Jesse Plemons, Hong Chau, Mamoudou Athie, and Hunter Schafer. They work as an actors’ troupe, playing different parts in each of the three stories.

Each section is named after the actions of a recurring character named RMF (Yorgos Stefanakos) – he dies, he flies, he eats a sandwich. And each concerns a self-destructive dependency on a core institution: work, marriage, and faith. In the first, Robert (Plemons) has a boss, Raymond (Dafoe), who schedules his days, down to what books he reads, and when he’s allowed to have sex with his wife (Chau). When Raymond asks him to hit a stranger with his car, he refuses. It ruins his life. In the second, Daniel (Plemons) has refigured his entire life around the identity of the widower, and so is deeply unnerved by the sudden reappearance of his wife, Liz (Stone), a scientist who disappeared during a diving accident. He starts to believe Liz is an imposter. In the third, Emily (Stone) hopes to find refuge from her marriage to Joseph (Alwyn) in a cult fixated on the arrival of their prophet. Emily is thrown out under barbaric circumstances.

We already know Stone, Dafoe, Alwyn, and Qualley fit neatly into Lanthimos’s universe. But so does Plemons, with his subdued unpredictability (there’s something about his manner that makes it always seem like he’s about to launch into a sentence). Athie’s serene presence feels like a lifesaver thrown out into the ocean; Chau has a way of lending even ministerial characters a kind of magnetic intensity. Composer Jerskin Fendrix chimes in like an extra player, with a piano clink of alarm when characters try to break the rules.

Liz describes a dream in which humans are ruled over by canines. It’s a typical joke for the director, dark but playful. Here, chocolate – something Liz despises – is plentiful, while her favourite meal of lamb is reserved for her masters. She learns to live on the chocolate, arguing: “It’s better to eat something that’s always there.” How absurd. But shouldn’t it be absurd, too, when we’re told the same by people who insist we should make do with the state of the world? Lanthimos’s characters may move and talk in stiff, alien ways, but their actions are entirely our own. They know us well, even if we try to deny the truth.

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring: Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn, Mamoudou Athie, Hunter Schafer. 18, 164 mins.

‘Kinds of Kindness’ is in cinemas from 28 June