KINDS OF KINDNESS is a Brutal and Unflinching Exploration of the Fragility of the Male Ego

To be honest, I almost walked out of Kinds of Kindness. I was thinking it to be some sort of shallow and quirky everyman story from the opening scenes and trailer. But after about twenty or so minutes just what Yorgos Lanthimos was cooking began to fill me with equal parts excitement and dread.

After deconstructing and annihilating the female role in cinema in Poor Things, the Greek auteur is back with yet another film shot shortly after Things wrapped, starring most of the same cast, this time demolishing the fragile male ego. Like Things, Kindness is a brutal and unflinching look this time at men through three triptych fables all starring Jesse Plemons as different characters, in stories that all appear to happen in the same world. It’s something that, like its predecessor, forces the viewer into a pure reactionary state on the first viewing, demanding another, to side step the more shocking moments and to fully mull through the dense layering of thematic tissue presented. 

The first story has Plemons, who appears to be a successful businessman, who we soon discover has made a bizarre masochistic pact with his boss (Willem Dafoe) for his idealistic existence. This has his boss controlling every aspect of his life down to the hour, what he wears, to whether or not he can have kids with his wife. He’s never said no, sacrificing everything for this fictitious career and station, that is until his boss asks him to get into a car accident possibly killing a man. This story digs into how a man will give up everything including his identity to achieve this toxic idea of masculine success. It’s a stark and sometimes absurdist look at both sides of the power dynamic, as we see not only Jesse’s POV, but his wealthy boss who treats those around him like his playthings. 

Next up Plemons is a cop whose explorer wife (Emma Stone) has gone missing. This story is essentially an exploration of that moment, when you wake up next to someone you’ve known most of your life and you have no idea who they are, but from a toxic male POV. This has Plemons’ character experiencing paranoid episodes when his wife finally returns and he swears it’s not her, forcing her into some graphic and disturbing lengths to prove her love/identity. You don’t know who to believe here, and Plemons manages to never lose the audience as he just delves deeper and deeper into this paranoid psyche taking us with him. While there’s some really shocking bits with graphic violence and sex in this particular story, it never manages to overwhelm the emotionally raw performance Plemons and Stone masterfully put forth. 

Finally, we take a step back from Plemons, and I have an idea this is because this story is probably the darkest of them all. Emma Stone plays a woman who has left her family to join a bizarre water-obsessed sex cult run by Willem Dafoe, but is expelled when she is sexually assaulted and “contaminated” by her husband, Plemons here plays her cult/work husband. This story digs into the selfish nature of man, and how these actions destroy lives. Stone here is also careful not to lose her agency or fall into a victim role as she tears around on screen in a bright purple Dodge Challenger, kidnapping those that she think could be the cult’s prophesied messiah to get her back into her leader’s good graces. 

While Kindness is a bit more visually restrained than Poor Things, it’s still as idealistic and as ambitious as its predecessor. The production design is equally impressive with these spaces our characters inhabit feeling like natural organic extensions of their counterparts, and lived in rather than staged for a real estate ad. There’s also some really interesting costume choices that really help to make each iteration of the characters stand out, without feeling too cartoonish. The film feels very documentary-esque in its visual language. This rather grounded cinematography is paired with a rather stark and anxiety inducing score that is less melodic and more into accentuating moments. It’s definitely a choice, that definitely works in favor of this film that relies so heavily on its ability to push the viewers’ comfortability. 

Plemons as a leading man surprised me, he does an excellent job at remaining accessible to the audience, while he does go to some pretty strange and dark places as you’d probably expect. He does this with a raw vulnerability that has the actor tackling three completely different, yet equally engaging characters from story to story. Stone also goes really weird here again and is tasked with some more prickly personas than before. The pair’s awkward chemistry only fuels the absurdist trajectory of the narratives as Lanthimos really surprised me at the intensity and depth he’s able to take his players in some of these situations, while never losing them or the audience. Speaking of chemistry, just to hammer its point even further the film toys with a homoeroticism between most of the male characters that is going to scare off those not ready to learn the lessons here.

Kinds of Kindness feels like the Yang to Poor Things Yin. Like that film it’s a hard pill to swallow and given the intended audience, most men are probably going to attempt to endure this film by uncomfortably laughing their way through it. But just below the surface is Lanthimos dealing out some hard lessons that are as relevant as ever to those male viewers this time around who didn’t get the warning shot of his previous film. It’s admittedly hard to watch because of the utterly unfiltered honesty embedded in Plemons’ performance that’s both toxic as it can be completely vulnerable at the same time. While I’ve always enjoyed his work over the years, Kinds of Kindness is nothing short of a revelatory gift for actor who takes us on a trio of psychological journeys that are profound as they are profane.  

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