‘Kinds of Kindness’ Pushes Yorgos Lanthimos’ Surreal Style To Unnerving Limits 

If we were to genuinely and soberly look at most of our social relations, they might look absolutely insane. A filmmaker like Yorgos Lanthimos sees right through our odd rituals and manners. His new anthology film, “Kinds of Kindness,” finds him taking his surreal style almost to the breaking point, wildly chopping away at convention with uneven yet fascinating results. This is also a return to the director’s artistic roots. Lately, Lanthimos had been finding a way to bridge his trademark weirdness with more mainstream storytelling, garnering praise and awards along the way. Now he seems to be using the newfound freedom of respectability to play around and cheerfully defy what audiences expect at a multiplex. 

The film works like an outrageous puzzle in a way. Only the mysterious character of R.M.F. (Yorgos Stefanakos) provides a running thread through the film’s three stories, appearing in three different stages of being. Lanthimos’ main cast changes roles with every tale. In the first one, Robert (Jesse Plemons) is a corporate worker whose life is literally arranged by his boss, Raymond (Willem Dafoe), from his weight to spouse. When Robert tries to change his routine he’s merely reduced to a pet begging for his master’s approval. In the second story, Plemons is now Daniel, a cop whose wife, Liz (Emma Stone), survives being marooned on an island, where she also descended into cannibalism. The third story refocuses more on Stone as Emily, who has left her family to join a strange sex cult led by Omi (Dafoe). But has she traded in one prison for another?

For Lanthimos’ longtime fans, “Kinds of Kindness” marks a return to the spirit of the Greek director’s early work like “Dogtooth,” his international breakthrough about a father manipulating language to keep his children locked at home. When Lanthimos made his English-language debut in the U.S., it was with the great “The Lobster,” starring Colin Farrell as a lonely man on an island where you either find a partner or get turned into an animal. It was a surrealist pleasure but clear in its themes. This was followed by the even more accessible “The Favourite” and last year’s “Poor Things,” where the Frankenstein story was reimagined into a hallucinatory feminist manifesto. Not wasting time, Lanthimos now releases six months later this 2 hour and 45 minute opus of provocation. 

The style of “Kinds of Kindness” is a hybrid of Luis Buñuel surrealism with the tableaux style of directors like Jean-Luc Godard or Robert Altman. The screenplay by Lanthimos and his “Dogtooth” collaborator, Efthimis Filippou, is both fever dream and cheerful stream of consciousness bites at society. You have to pause attempts at rationalizing everything since the material is exploring our irrational existence. Plemons’ Robert gets instructions from Raymond on whom to flirt with to secure a wife. When the worker falls out of favor, he corners Raymond in a parking garage, insisting he’s eaten two burgers and milkshakes to get his weight up (Raymond believes “there is nothing sillier than a skinny man”). Just ponder how ridiculous most corporate policies or office traditions really look in hindsight. During the rather harrowing second story, Daniel becomes convinced the Liz at home is not his actual wife. His subsequent tests of loyalty are bloody and squirm-inducing, but most demands on spouses should inspire the same revulsion. 

Almost daring Hollywood to regret opening its velvet curtains, Lanthimos gleefully pushes the envelope to truly unnerving extremes. Before this film, his most unnerving work in English was 2017’s “Killing of a Sacred Deer,” which never went as far as dabbling in cannibalism and animal abuse. Among the feats required of an enigmatic Margaret Qualley is diving head first into an empty pool. Yet, there are also moments of surreal elegance, as when cult guru Omi and his partner, Aka (Hong Chau), weep tears into a portable swimming pool in front of their acolytes. Lanthimos and his regular cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, explore grotesqueries that stand next to oddball scenes of deadpan comedy. Nothing feels exploitative, even a date rape scene that is terrifying and ultimately sad. Though the material is much less digestible than the director’s last few films, it’s at least challenging. One of surrealism’s key ideas when it first emerged in post-World War I Europe was no hope in civilization. Any society can go mad. 

For the cast, this is almost a heroic feat which they pull off. Everyone is pushed to extremes, even Emma Stone, who already won an Oscar for her brilliantly quirky performance in “Poor Things.” But here the actors are meant to strip down to some of the barest of human behavior. Risky sex, cutting out your liver on demand, all is fair game in the world of this film. What makes it even more intriguingly difficult is how the performances change characters but sustain that dreamy-eyed, almost flat tone Lanthimos uses to deliver hilarious one-liners. When Emma Stone breaks out into a dance near the end, it feels truly liberating. It’s also the moment that captures best the spirit of “Kinds of Kindness.” It is a free-wheeling challenge that might require more than one viewing to fully process. Even if one viewing might be more than enough for you, it will nonetheless be hard to forget.

Kinds of Kindness” releases June 21 in select theaters and expands June 28 in theaters nationwide.