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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Kinds of Kindness"

NATHAN WEINBENDER:

Kinds of Kindness is an ironic title if there ever was one. It’s the latest from director Yorgos Lanthimos and a follow-up to his Oscar-winning Poor Things, and it’s also his most confrontational and alienating creation in more than a decade. This is a perverse, shocking, absurd, disquieting and very, very weird film about, among other things, the nature of human cruelty.

It’s an anthology of three narratively disconnected chapters that share the same small cast of actors: Jesse Plemons (who won the best actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Hong Chau, Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn and Mamoudou Athie. They all play multiple roles in this trio of warped tales about emotional and sexual sadomasochism, physical autonomy and out-of-nowhere violence.

In the first story, Plemons plays a corporate drone whose every action is dictated by an eccentric millionaire played by Dafoe. The clothes he wears, the books he reads, even the woman he has married—all of those decisions have been made for him. When Plemons is then ordered to crash his car into another, killing the driver, he protests, and his regimented life suddenly begins to fall apart.

In story two, Plemons is a police officer whose wife, an oceanographer played by Stone, has gone missing with her crew on their latest excursion. She returns one day, having been stranded on a desert island for months. But the husband starts to notice changes in her demeanor that convince him he’s now living with some kind of impostor.

The final chapter has Stone and Plemons as representatives of a new age cult, traveling around the state on behalf of their svengali Dafoe. They have been given a rigorous list of specifications as they search for their newest acolyte, who can supposedly raise the dead. Meanwhile, Stone is tempted to return to her life before the cult, which turns out to be another kind of emotional prison.

These stories have a few obvious things in common: doubles and doppelgangers, pivotal scenes set amidst the antiseptic gleam of hospital rooms and morgues, a strange man named R.M.F. who pops up in every chapter. They’re also driven by premises that, on the surface, would be at home on The Twilight Zone: your own behavior is beyond your control, your spouse isn’t who they seem, you’ve been brainwashed by a cult. But the ironic twists in Lanthimos’ stories, which he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Efthimis Filippou, don’t offer the satisfying catharsis of a good Twilight Zone episode. If anything, they’re withholding easy satisfaction from us. You may be frustrated by this, or you’ll see it as a logical extension of the movie’s themes.

To say Kinds of Kindness is an acquired taste is an understatement. Lanthimos’ recent arthouse hits are certainly odd, but they’re positively mainstream compared to this one, which returns Lanthimos to the deadpan nastiness of his 2009 breakthrough Dogtooth. It doesn’t always work from moment to moment; in fact, there are scenes that confounded me, others that delighted me, some that turned me off completely.

Yet it keeps rattling around in my head, like a song you don’t realize is catchy until you’ve been humming it for days. It’s a comedy, I guess, but a deeply sick one. You’re not sure when to laugh, and when—or if—you do, the laugh is always undercut by discomfiting, unsettling darkness.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.

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Nathan Weinbender is a film critic and one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.