‘Kinds of Kindness’: Emma Stone’s Twisted New Film Makes ‘Poor Things’ Seem Normal

Searchlight Pictures
Searchlight Pictures

Yorgos Lanthimos’ most recent film, the Oscar-winning Poor Things, was ultimately a nice movie for the director. Yes, it was bizarre and filled with sex scenes, but when you really boil it down to its essence it was the uplifting story of a woman gaining her sense of self and thus unusual in his oeuvre, which is full of bleak comedies where fathers lie to their children to keep them imprisoned at home, and a happy ending means blinding yourself.

Now Lanthimos and his Poor Things star Emma Stone are back and at the Cannes Film Festival with Kinds of Kindness, a film of a much different outlook on humanity. This omnibus, consisting of three stories, is brimming with cruelty as it weaves tales of people who act out to appease the ones they love—or at least think they love. You see a limb chopped off, an organ removed, and Jesse Plemons licking a gunshot wound in Joe Alwyn’s hand, among other atrocities. The message of Kinds of Kindness is that to win the affection of their desires, humans will do the unspeakable and therefore are selfish and unredeemable. It’s great.

It also feels like pure uncut Yorgos, working in tandem with Efthimis Filippou, with whom he also wrote Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, both of which have a lot in common with Kinds of Kindness given their interest in social experiments and moral quandaries. Lanthimos and Stone’s collaboration once again produces bold acting, but the film also reveals that the director has found another muse in Plemons, who anchors two installments.

Plemons’ brilliant eerieness has recently become a meme online thanks to his appearance in Civil War, which capitalized on his ability to combine the folksy with the disconcerting. Here, he has one of his best showcases to date, playing desperate men driven to their extremes. In the first part, he is Robert, a sub who has given over control of his life to Raymond (Willem Dafoe, returning to Yorgos-land). When Raymond asks Robert to injure himself in a car accident and go to the hospital, potentially killing the other driver—a silent figure called R.M.F. who appears throughout the film—Robert refuses. Raymond rejects him and Robert, heartsick, spirals, eventually targeting Rita (Stone), Raymond’s new sub, out of jealousy.

A photo including Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe in the film Kind of Kindness

Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe

Searchlight Pictures

In the next installment, Plemons is Daniel, a cop whose wife Liz (Stone) has been lost at sea. He can’t stop moping, even forcing his married friends (Margaret Qualley and Mamoudou Athie) to watch the sex tape they all made to make him feel better. (Cue the orgy sequence sight gag involving all four actors that everyone will be talking about.) Once Liz is found, he becomes convinced she is not actually herself but rather an imposter. His suspicion results in him forcing her to do increasingly violent tasks to prove herself to him.

Plemons has an ability to transform his gaze from sweet to seething in an instant, which makes him the perfect vessel for these fables where you empathize with him until you don’t. He has a deadpan that is ideal for Lanthimos in this mode, turning the intensely odd into the universal.

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Finally, however, Lanthimos cedes the floor to Stone. Plemons is there too, glowering, but it is Stone’s show as she becomes Emily, a woman who has left her husband (Alwyn) and child to join a cult led by OMI and AKA (Dafoe and Hong Chau), who make their followers and sexual devotees drink their tears and have sex with them every night. Emily and her partner (Plemons) are on a quest to find a woman who can raise the dead, but Emily is drawn back to her daughter, which risks making her impure to OMI and AKA. Stone shifts effortlessly from motherly to maniacal and is as captivating as ever.

Still, through no fault of Stone’s, this is the weakest chapter, in part because it doesn’t have the tight dilemmas of the others. Its world is just a little too big, resulting in lingering questions. The others feel like perverted bedtime stories; this one doesn’t have that snap. And yet it wins you over—or potentially could revolt you further—with its truly grim punchline of an ending, a hope-dasher of the highest order.

A photo including Mamoudou Athie in the film Kind of Kindness

Mamoudou Athie

Searchlight Pictures

Pitch-black humor runs throughout Kinds of Kindness, including a montage of a beach society run by dogs. How funny you find it also depends on how much you can stomach the gruesome. This is intentionally the stuff of nightmares, a point punctuated by the fact that “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by the Eurythmics blares over the opening moments.

As soon as the song started the Cannes press screening audience started clapping along. The room was hyped for Lanthimos’ particular brand of nihilism and they got it in spades. New fans from Poor Things might be disappointed: That movie actually has quite a bit of kindness as Bella Baxter experiences the good and the bad of the word. Despite it being in the title, there is very little kindness in this one. Or if there is, it’s the kind of kindness that is the result of love that smothers and demands too much. It’s a movie that laughs in the face of a happy ending, refusing to let you get too comfortable. It is evil in the best way.

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