Kinds of Kindness: Yorgos Lanthimos spins three wicked yarns from different threads of human cruelty

Lanthimos follows up Poor Things (2023) with some far darker social experiments in this chilling portmanteau featuring brilliant, shapeshifting performances.

Margaret Qualley as Vivian, Jesse Plemons as Robert, Willem Dafoe as Raymond in Kinds of Kindness (2024)
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. 

In Yorgos Lanthimos’s comic epic fantasy Poor Things (2023), Emma Stone was electrifying as a Frankensteinian creature, Bella Baxter – a deceased pregnant woman, reanimated with the transplanted brain of her foetus. From a laboratory to a world voyage and peril, then back again to practise medicine, Bella’s rapid development defied biological expectations and societal norms. In the Greek director’s new science-fiction triptych, Kinds of Kindness (2024), the women Stone plays are far darker scientific and social experiments: never quite in charge of their destinies, driven by the yearnings of others. Indeed, in this deadpan, disquieting film, the demands for manifestations of love and selflessness take on frighteningly narcissistic and abusive proportions. 

Stone plays a different character in each of the film’s three parts, as do her principal co-stars Willem Dafoe, Jesse Plemons, Margaret Qualley, and Hong Chau. In the first part, she’s Rita, a young woman under the spell of a chillingly manipulative corporate magnate, Raymond (Dafoe). Raymond dictates every detail – including diet and sex – of the comfortable life and daily routine of his employee Robert (Plemons). When Robert fails to cause a car accident and kill a man as instructed, Rita steps in to complete the task. For the second, Stone plays a marine biologist who disappears at sea, and whose husband (Plemons) then believes she has been replaced by a near-perfect replica. 

In one of the film’s many absurdist scenes, Robert tests the impostor by demanding that she feed him her finger; after she complies, he demands her liver, only to find her dead, stomach slashed, with her meaty organ splayed on the carpet. The final segment finds Stone as a young woman who decides to abandon her family and take on a new identity: she joins a cult, alongside another member (Plemons again) who is searching for a mysterious young woman rumoured to be able to resurrect the dead. Throughout, the characters in subordinate positions – Plemons, in particular, but also Stone as a devoted, increasingly frantic fanatic – fear yet also crave tyranny, which relieves them of the inconvenience of having to think for themselves or experience doubt. Desperate for approval in the first story, conscientious Robert gives in and commits a crime to regain Raymond’s favour. 

Dafoe and Plemons are brilliant playing variations on a sadistic master-slave relationship. Metamorphosed from a cruel corporate overlord to a hipsterish cult leader, his manic eyes accentuated with a heavy eyeliner, Dafoe dazzles with his devilish, chameleon charms. Plemons is heartbreaking as, in turns, a man too addicted to praise to break out of his cage, a paranoiac husband plunged into desperation and cruelty, and a religious sect member carrying out orders with an unwavering, unfeeling efficiency. Meanwhile, Stone’s characters anchor the film, particularly her desperado researcher on an elusive quest for a Lazarus-like miracle in part three, where delusion reaches crescendo once her character is ostracised. When a test of purity (done by submitting her to a sauna and licking her sweat) reveals her character was raped, Dafoe’s merciless cult leader casts her out – just as his Raymond cast out Plemons in part one. It’s a vicious cycle of mind control and subjugation, in which kindness is in short supply and love slips from altruism to something more sinister, annihilating rationality and destroying wills and lives.

Brainwashing, mutilation, murder and self-sacrifice don’t immediately sound like the stuff of comedy. Nevertheless, Lanthimos has wicked fun spinning intertwined yarns which all revolve around the motif of tyrannical love and various forms of unfreedom. The film’s increasingly absurdist scenarios and endless quirky details guarantee that the story never settles into comforting naturalism, but retains a surreal edge. Sometimes a single object elicits multiple gags, such as “an authentic smashed-in” racket of John McEnroe – a hilariously misshapen object, which joins a treasure trove of sports memorabilia given to Robert by Raymond, and which Robert’s wife (Chau) insists is the best gift they’ve ever received. When the racket vanishes, Robert suspects that the theft is a punishment by Raymond, and steals it back. 

Robbie Ryan, who shot Poor Things and The Favourite (2018), delivers limpid images, whose elegance is unfailingly unsettling, matched by the anguished, discordant piano score by Jerskin Fendrix. Some of Lanthimos’s insights (that men behave worse than beasts, for example) come across as banal and obvious, as does his overreliance on dreams as a framing device. But for all its coolness, Kinds of Kindness is also deadly earnest about the many ways in which kindness can be a cruel and deviant master in a decaying society that’s lost its moral compass.

 ► Kinds of Kindness is in UK cinemas from 28 June.