Review: Jesse Plemons is all kinds of fabulous in 'Kinds of Kindness'

If you enjoy films that explain it all, "Kinds of Kindness" is not for you.

June 21, 2024, 4:04 AM

If you enjoy films that explain it all for you, then let me do you a kindness and say that "Kinds of Kindness" is not for you. But if you like the kind of challenge that exasperates as often as it entertains, then this mesmerizing mindbender is just the provocation you need. It's your choice.

But how do you not choose Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director whose early work at the art-house, such as "Dogtooth," "The Lobster" and "The Killing of a Sacred Deer," gave way to the audience-and-Oscar-friendly likes of "The Favourite" and "Poor Things," both of which star Emma Stone, who took home a gold statue for her tour de force in the last one?

Stone is back in the Lanthimos business with "Kinds of Kindness" (only in theaters), a New Orleans-set throwback to the head-scratchers he cut his teeth on with writer Efthymis Filippou. The film tells a trio of tales that last three hours and never tie up complexity with a pretty bow.

Emma Stone and Joe Alwyn in "Kinds of Kindness."
Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures

Go ahead, run for cover. But those who stay are in for a surreal hellzapoppin that turns the world upside down, which is how Lanthimos likes it. Stone excels in each chapter, along with Willem Dafoe and Jesse Plemons, in different roles that tease out themes of power and control.

Stay with me. You barely see Stone in this first chapter called "The Death of RMF," a mystery character who links this darkly comic triptych in, yup, mysterious ways. Lanthimos loves to make an audience squirm. Mission accomplished, as you'll see.

Stone plays Rita, who shows up late as a work slave for Raymond (the great Dafoe), a boss who makes life a living hell for his employees, especially Robert (Plemons), telling him when and how to dress, eat, sleep and have sex with his wife (Hong Chau). For his trouble, Robert is gifted with a dream collection of sports memorabilia. Is that enough to lick someone's boots?

It is, until Robert rebels when his boss demands that he ram his car at high speed into a vehicle driven by -- you guessed it -- the aforementioned RMF. Robert's disobedience banishes him from Raymond's orbit. A good thing? Nah. Robert can't function without a tyrannical master.

The tables are turned in the next chapter, entitled "RMF is Flying," in which Plemons plays Daniel, a cop whose wife Liz (Stone) has been lost at sea, leaving him so adrift that he pressures his married buddies (Margaret Qualley and Mamoudou Athie) to watch a graphic sex tape the foursome had previously made. Prepare to be knocked for a graphic loop.

Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe in "Kinds of Kindness."
Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures

Imagine Daniel's shock when Liz shows up alive. He thinks she's an imposter, what with the way she's barking orders at him to do her perverse bidding. Cue the bruising battle of wills.

I interrupt this S&M fable to say two things. First, that Lanthimos really pushes the buttons on human debasement. And second, that Plemons is all kinds of fabulous. After his bone-chilling cameo as a trigger-happy soldier in "Civil War," he now commands the screen in a performance so deadpan funny and nuanced that it won him the best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Stone finally comes into her own in the third chapter, "RMF Eats a Sandwich," which he definitely does. But not before her character, Emily, dumps her husband (Joe Alwyn) and daughter (Merah Benoit) to join Andrew (Plemons) as followers in a faux-religion sex cult run by Omi (Dafoe) and Aki (Chau), which claims to be able to resurrect the dead if you pay a price.

It's a bitter pill we're being asked to swallow. That's the thing about Lanthimos -- his indisputable talent seduces actors and audiences to participate in his vision of a cruel world that looks scarily like our own. But I can't help thinking that his secret agenda is to have us rebel against him and maybe think for ourselves. And that looks to me like a kind of hope.