In news, non-illustrated, Review

For years, Searchlight Pictures has been one of the most admirable movie studios in the history of Hollywood, distributing smart, norm-busting and often controversial films with a courage few in Tinsel Town ever exhibit. From BLACK SWAN to THE TREE OF LIFE to BIRDMAN, Searchlight has always championed specialty films, including the work of filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. They distributed THE FAVOURITE and POOR THINGS, films that scooped up a multitude of accolades and Oscars along the way, and now they’ve released Lanthimos’ latest opus as well. It’s an absurdist black comedy entitled KINDS OF KINDNESS and it’s challenging in all kinds of ways, both good and bad. There is much to admire in it, particularly the commitment of the players to performing its tricky, difficult material, but too often the film remains out of reach, too metaphorical, and overly long as narrative (almost three hours to tell three disparate stories). It’s adult filmmaking for certain, but whether or not it’s the kind that stimulates robust conversation afterward depends upon one’s willingness to ponder a film that is excessively strange, violent and unsavory.

Lanthimos has always stirred the pot, but in both THE FAVOURITE and POOR THINGS, he was able to connect audiences to relatable, sympathetic characters. Think of the two ladies-in-waiting struggling to find favor with an unpredictable queen in the former, or the young woman struggling to outgrow Victorian patriarchy and stand on her own two feet in the latter. But in the three separate stories at play in KINDS OF KINDNESS, characters are more symbols than people. Even with actors like Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, and Willem Dafoe playing different roles in all three, these talented actors never quite connect the way they have so often in the past.

In the first story, Plemons plays a successful corporate type trying to follow every single instruction laid out for him by his domineering boss (Dafoe). From job tasks to dietary habits to the exact time of day he is ordered to make love to his wife, his corporate acquiescence is paramount. Then, the one time he defies instruction, being asked to cause a car accident that will kill a man, his life unravels. His story becomes an increasingly dark one about loss and the consequences of thinking for yourself. Plemons gives it his all, but since he’s playing more of a symbol – that of corporate servitude – it’s hard to feel for the excessive binds his character falls into.

In the second story, Plemons again takes center stage as a policeman whose marine biologist wife (Emma Stone) is lost at sea. When she returns to him, he suspects that she is not his wife but some sort of imposter. His trepidation is not helped by wordless phone calls from a silent stranger seemingly checking in with him on a daily basis. This episode could’ve made for a searing commentary about how couples change in a marriage or how one can never really know another person entirely, but the tale gets hobbled by some risible distractions including outrageous sexual peccadilloes and gruesome violence. A potentially paranoid thriller gets lost in its own excesses.

Finally, in the most inexplicable story of the three, Emma Stone is front and center as a woman who is trying desperately to curry favor within a cult. She’s aided by a fellow cultist (Plemons) as they search for a woman with the ability to bring back the dead. Why they’re searching for such a healer is never fully explained but it seems Lanthimos and the screenplay’s co-author Efthimis Filippou are attempting to comment on misplaced faith. Further confusion infiltrates the story when Stone’s character is deemed ‘unclean’ by the persnickety cult leader (Dafoe), but it feels half-baked too.

Perhaps Lanthimos, et al. are trying to suggest throughout that institutions dominating our society are ludicrous, be it corporations, marriage or religions. But for as much time as we’re asked to ponder such themes, the viewing experience feels too drawn out and irritating. The many twists and turns throughout help, but shallow, unlikable characters keep us at arms’ length. The only character I felt sorry for was a stray dog that Stone’s character harms merely to gain access to a veterinary clinic in the third story, and it’s such a vicious plot point, it felt utterly exploitative.

A strong cast, including Hong Chau, Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn, and Mamoudou Athie, all play multiple characters across the storylines, but such strengths don’t make up for the film’s numerous faults. Thankfully, in a middling summer so far, this challenging film isn’t another prequel, sequel or reboot. But ultimately KINDS OF KINDNESS feels labored and even crass. The filmmaker hit high-water marks with both THE FAVOURITE and POOR THINGS, so hopefully Lanthimos’ next effort will do so in kind.

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