A trip to the mean streets of 1970s New York City in this tale of crime, drama, and women taking it for themselves.
The Kitchen is one of those movies that makes a statement of the kind of story it’s telling right from the get-go after the retro Warner Bros. logo, as James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” plays across a skyline shot of 70s New York. Gender is very much at the forefront of Andrea Berloff’s mind in this gangster tale adapted from a DC Vertigo comic book.
The wives of three mobsters, Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss), have to learn to survive after their husbands are arrested. They start to take over control of the neighbourhood, gaining influence, allies, and enemies along the way.
Early in The Kitchen one of the main trio of ladies says that there is “no place for us out there”, and it’s true. They are looked down on by everyone in the “family” of the Irish mafia and they can’t get any help from mainstream society after their husbands go to jail. They essentially have no choice but to make a place for themselves, and thus unfolds the drama at the centre of the film. All the women are seeking control in some aspect. For Claire it’s self control and authority over her life after being brutally treated by her husband and others, with Kathy it’s her children and taking care of them but she finds a sense of purpose, in her mind, giving back to the community where the former power structure in the neighbourhood failed, and Ruby wants to take it from the people who have been telling her that she doesn’t belong where she is. Such a dynamic and situation would not work with lesser actresses in those roles.
Melissa McCarthy continues the strong start that we saw in Can You Ever Forgive Me? with her taking on more dramatically focussed roles. Tiffany Haddish, likewise, steps away from comedy here and has a great presence, the added racial element – something changed from the original comic material – in this particular time and place being something I found very engaging. Elisabeth Moss, however, really makes for the heart of the trio. Claire is a kind soul who has been beaten down literally and figuratively again and again, even being punished for trying to help. The new path the group forge offers her freedoms and catharsis that she’s never experienced before.
Together the three make a group that you believe can work together and have known each other for some time. Ultimately the story is nothing new, just about every mob based film shows a form of this, but the approach of more conversation than strategy over action is a worthwhile approach to explore. Their rise is also quite nicely reflected in the clothes they wear; costumes going from drab and shapeless to fashionable. The rest of the cast, including James Badge Dale, Brian d’Arcy, Myk Watford, and Margo Martindale, fill out the rest of the cast well with varying degrees of scumbag.
Whilst the ladies have the know-how to run the neighbourhood, they’re still in need of muscle to enforce their plans. Enter Domhnall Gleeson’s Gabriel – although he proves to be less of an angel and more a psychopath – with a soft smile and capable of violence and murder on a level that the ladies can’t quite handle, at least not yet. The most telling scene and establishment of his character is also a borderline absurdly funny one, as he calmly and methodically instructs the women in how to properly dismember a body for disposal. Kathy and Ruby can’t stomach it, but Claire just seems curious and wants to learn. That relationship between the two is also something that ends up being quite a genuine and sweet thing, although you know in a world of dangerous people like this nothing good can last very long.
Where there is a rise there is also inevitably a fall. As things develop and we move into the last act, some things happen that many will feel is one twist too far, but I feel that it further emphasises the theme of power and the lengths that can be gone to in order to obtain it. Alongside this I feel that The Kitchen is a story of the danger of underestimating people. The men in the ladies’ lives underestimate them and so they, in turn, have to avoid making similar mistakes. It ends in a place that in one sense could be one of empowerment and breaking a cycle of violence (and the movie does get pretty violent at times usually courtesy of many gunshots to the head) but in another can be seen as broken trust, far away from where these characters started doing these things. It’s interesting, and means that whilst Berloff’s film isn’t the game-changer it wants to be in terms of the female-driven crime movie, it still has some things to offer and is highly watchable.
The Kitchen is in UK cinemas from September 20th
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