Kinds of Kindness review: such dark delights

Disturbing and hilarious, Kinds of Kindness reuinites Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe with the Poor Things director Yorgos Lanthimos.
Kinds of Kindness. Image: Searchlight Pictures.

There is a peculiar power to the number three. It suggests asymmetry, an imbalance, the discord of the ‘third wheel.’ In Kinds of Kindness, director Yorgos Lanthimos takes up these associations with absurdist glee, presenting a triptych film where bad things really do come in threes.

Lanthimos re-teams with Efthimis Filippou who shares co-writing credits on several of his films, including The Lobster (2015) and the film that launched the ‘Greek New Wave’ onto the international cinematic landscape, Dogtooth (2009).

Kinds of Kindness shares some of the DNA of these earlier films: a fascination with the cruelty of human relationships, the tension between what we desire and what entraps us, and the murky edges of social roles: where does the role end and a person’s identity begin?

But it is perhaps their 2019 collaboration – the short film Nimic (available on MUBI) – that shares a very particular kind of horror with Kinds of Kindness. In Nimic, Matt Dillon is replaced by a stranger who steps into his family home one day and claims to be the ‘real’ version of him. While there are a lot of ideas freewheeling across the three stories, one throughline is the terror of being replaced, of being exposed as somehow fraudulent, or being deemed less worthy of love than an adversary.   

Like those earlier films, Kinds of Kindness takes place in a ‘kind-of’ reality, at once recognisable and strange. The stories are all set in New Orleans, and the same actors play different characters in each instalment. This allows the development of mysteriously creeping ideas, the personas from the previous story bleeding into the next in disturbing and often uncanny ways that add a further layer of intrigue to the atmosphere of comic disquiet.

The other tangible element that links the stories is a mysterious man known only by the initials RMF who appears briefly in each film and makes an amusing cameo appearance during the film’s closing credits.

Each story features characters who are exploited in the service of love: an employee who is deprived of choice attempts to break free of his oppressive boss; a policeman fears that his recently returned wife is not the same woman; and a spiritual devotee desperately searches for a young woman who can raise the dead.

Read: Poor Things review: a fabulous feminist odyssey

The cast is uniformly excellent, and you get the sense that they are all having an absolute hoot, all firmly committed to the bizarre logic at play. Emma Stone and Willem Defoe are reunited with Lanthimos after Poor Things (2023), but it is a showstopping (triple) turn from Jesse Plemons that is the standout performance. Fittingly, his roles in Kinds of Kindness earned him the best actor award at Cannes. Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn, Hong Chau and Mamadou Athie round out the stellar repertory cast.  

Three’s a crowd

Kinds of Kindness examines ideas of power and control. Lanthimos presents us with a series of demented scenarios involving unbalanced relationships that play on a crude dominant/ submissive dynamic. The fear of being replaced by someone more loveable or more competent drives the submissive characters to go to absurd lengths to keep these relationships alive.

The first story takes the idea of being committed to your job to perverse extremes. Every aspect of Robert’s (Jesse Plemons) life is controlled by his boss Raymond (Willem Defoe). He is forbidden from making a single decision for himself; whether it’s when to have sex with his wife, what he eats for breakfast or which novel he reads, Raymond decides.

This level of control extends to his marriage (which was orchestrated by Raymond) and to parenthood (Robert is not allowed to be a father). In return, Raymond offers him a lavish lifestyle and expensive gifts. But when he is directed to commit a murder by driving a car into another vehicle, Robert refuses.

For his disobedience, Robert is cast out and his life unravels. Here and in the ensuing stories, there is a third party ready to step into the fold. In this case it’s Rita (Emma Stone) who becomes Robert’s unwitting rival for Raymond’s affections.

The various roles that Stone plays, as employee, wife, and finally wife-fleeing-her-marriage to be a cult member, all hinge on a power imbalance where she is beholden to the demands of another, and where another person stands ready to replace her, in one case quite literally.

The film walks a perfectly calibrated tightrope of tension and comedy. One minute we are gasping in shock and the next we are roaring with laughter. An unexpected scene involving a home video is the funniest thing I’ve seen in the cinema this year. The precarious power imbalances offer so many unexpected narrative turns that it’s impossible to predict what will happen next.   

Through a glass darkly

What these characters have in common is a willingness to outsource their thoughts, actions and even their moral compasses to fulfil a social role that subordinates them. While the extremes Lanthimos conjures are rooted in an off-kilter sensibility where nothing is off limits (cannibalism anyone?), there lurks a warning at the heart of the film, to examine our own relationships and the social conventions that bind us. Sure, you might be loved, Lanthimos seems to be saying, but are you also imprisoned by the very things that offer you the most comfort?

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan defamilarises contemporary settings by presenting them from unsettling angles. A tableau of a happily married couple is alarmingly bisected, faces cut off at the neck. Wide-angle framing renders characters adrift in their homes and workplaces. These usually benign spaces feel clinical and vaguely dangerous.

Abstracted cuts to black-and-white images of crawling insects and fleshy meat offer the texture of dreams and of nightmares. And the stylised delivery of dialogue is often robotic, which draws attention to the absurdity of the everyday interactions that we all take part in, the social routines that protect us but also hem us in.

Jerskin Fendrix’s discordant soundscape adds to the creeping anxiety and male voices take on the quality of a demented Greek chorus. Kinds of Kindness is disturbing and hilarious, often at the same time. Lanthimos is a filmmaker at the height of his powers and watching his delightfully dark dissection of power and control is truly a delirious pleasure.


5 out of 5 stars



Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau


Yorgos Lanthimos

Format: Movie

Country: USA, Ireland

Release: 11 July 2024

Gabrielle O'Brien is a Melbourne based film critic. An unrepentant cinephile, she likes it best in the dark.