Producers: Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe, Yorgos Lanthimos and Kasia Malipan  Director: Yorgos Lanthimos    Screenplay: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou   Cast: Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn, Mamoudou Athie, Hunter Schafer and Yorgos Stefanakos   Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: C-

After moderating his absurdist, misanthropic proclivities to some degree with “The Favourite” and “Poor Things” (perhaps the result of working with writer Tony McNamara) and reaping the benefit in terms of commercial success, Yorgos Lanthimos returns to his default setting with a vengeance in this tripartite epic (in which he reteams with Efthimis Filippou, his collaborator on “Dogtooth,” “Alps ,” “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”).  The film, made from a clinically cynical perspective in a detached, sardonically contemptuous tone, begins promisingly but descends over the course of its nearly three-hour running-time into increasingly acrid territory.  The three mini-movies that make up “Kinds of Kindness” all share the writer-director’s familiar themes of control, domination and submission—opening the trilogy with the Eurythmics’ 1983 “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” neatly encapsulates what follows—but treat them in a brutally affected fashion that comes across not just as self-indulgent, but designed actually to disgust as much as glibly provoke.  The dreams here are sour ones indeed.

All three episodes feature the same actors serving as a sort of repertory company, assuming different roles in each—except for Yorgos Stefanakos, who appears in all of them as the mute R.M.F., the figure specified in the titles of the episodes.

The first and best of these is the odd but mostly amusing “The Death of R.M.F.” It focuses on Robert (Jesse Plemons), who has willingly deferred in every aspect of his life, including his marriage to Sarah (Hong Chau) and an injunction against their having children, to the apparently arbitrary dictates of his boss Raymond (Willem Dafoe).  When Raymond instructs him to get behind the wheel of an SUV and deliberately crash into a car driven by R.M.F., giving him the exact time and place of the encounter, Robert follows his instructions. But R.M.F. is only injured, not killed, and so Raymond orders him to repeat the procedure.  When Robert hesitates, Raymond dismisses him and effectively dismantles his life, though Robert contributes to the destruction by confessing his supine role to Sarah, who leaves him.  Robert begs for a second chance, but Raymond curtly rejects him.  Robert seeks solace from Liz (Emma Stone), a woman who seems sympathetic but turns out to be quite otherwise; and though he tries to reassert his independence by approaching Raymond’s wife Vivian (Margaret Qualley), ultimately Robert succumbs to his erstwhile boss’ irresistible hold over him.  And as in each film, there’s a final grim joke, in this case involving a weird gift Raymond had made to him but then reclaimed.

The second segment, “R.M.F. is Flying,” casts Plemons as Daniel, a beat cop in an unnamed city.  His wife Liz (Stone) is a marine biologist who’s disappeared on a research trip and is presumed dead, and his partner Neil (Mamoudou Athie), along with his wife Martha (Qualley), try to comfort him, even agreeing to watch uncomfortable tapes of the group sex the two couples engaged in, which Daniel for some reason longs to relive in their company.  When Liz suddenly returns alive and well, rescued from an island by a helicopter flown by R.M.F., all seems well, but Daniel notices odd changes in her conduct that persuade him that she’s an imposter—a contention his father-in-law George (Dafoe) can’t understand.  So as a test Daniel challenges her to feed him dishes that require her to serve up parts of her own body, a process that gets progressively more gruesome.  The actual Liz’s surprise return “proves” him right, but a postscript depicting some of the intelligent dogs the “false” Liz spoke about as having nurtured her during her absence suggests madness is afoot.

Finally, “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich” takes things into no less grisly territory.  Stone and Plemons are Emily and Andrew, emissaries of cult leader Omi (Dafoe) dispatched to locate a presumably messianic figure who can resuscitate the dead.  Armed with prophecies about the person, they test candidates in a hospital morgue, but have no luck until approached by Rebecca (Qualley), who believes her twin sister Ruth, a veterinarian, might be the individual they’re searching for, and, as it turns out, is willing to take extreme measures to prove it—as is Emily.  And Emily has much to prove, because, according to Omi and his partner, she has been defiled by an unwilling sexual encounter with her estranged husband Joseph (Joe Alwyn) and will have to be expelled from the group unless her purity can be restored.  She thus seeks to prove her worthiness, but in the end her reckless driving leads to an ironic denouement; nevertheless, if you’re willing to sit through the closing credits, a final joke awaits. 

All three mini-films are played with an arch affection in both the writing, which is deliberately stilted, and the performances, which can have moments of abandon (as in Stone’s wildness in the second or third segments), or simple naturalness (Dafoe’s turn in installment two) but generally opt for a halting, self-conscious air (Plemons throughout).  You do have to credit the entire cast with submissiveness to Lanthimos’ peculiar vision (ironic, given the theme of the picture), however, and the same is true of the crafts team—cinematographer Robbie Ryan, production designer Anthony Gasparro, costumer Jennifer Needham and editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis, who invest the whole with a semi-sterile, quasi-surrealistic look that befits the material.  And Jerskin Fendrix’s score, consisting mostly of dissonant forte piano chords with occasional tinkling interludes and choral interjections, does so as well. 

It’s the vision itself that’s so creepy, not so much because its view of humanity is dark and depressing, but because it treats that view with such snarky derision: there’s no room for even a shred of hopefulness here.  And by lingering on the most revolting moments (Robert’s disposal of his R.M.F. problem, Liz’s self-mutilation, Emily’s treatment of Ruth, several instances of characters licking blood and sweat) with a lordly, dispassionate gaze, Lanthimos emphasizes an attitude of gleeful cruelty.  (Curiously, however, he treats Joseph’s rape of his wife with perverse discretion.)

One can discern Lanthimos’ filmmaking talent in every frame of the deceptively titled “Kinds of Kindness,” which certainly can refer only to those of the proverbial killing kind.  But by going too far for so long, the triptych will probably drive away those who found Lanthimos’ last two films unconventional but intriguing.  It’s unconventional, to be sure, but more repulsive than engrossing, a trio of malicious turn-off jokes told with a sadistic cinematic grin.