Ask virtually anyone and they’ll tell you that the only thing in the theaters these days are reboots, remakes, and superhero films. To a degree, that’s pretty spot on. Studios make more of what audiences pay to see and nostalgia equates to big money these days. Tickling that particular part of the brain is the latest film from WB Pictures, New Line Cinema, and BRON Creative, The Kitchen, an adaptation of the DC Vertigo limited eight-issue series from comic creators Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle with a screenplay by writer and first-time director Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton). Set in the late ‘70s in New York, The Kitchen is an unexpected, yet timely crime thriller exploring race, class, and feminism in which three woman take over the local Irish gang.
In January of 1978, in Hell’s Kitchen, times are tough. There’s not enough to go around and the neighborhood is starting to show it. Things go from bad to worse for Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) when their husbands get arrested after committing a robbery at a convenience store and assaulting the initial arresting officers. Ruby and Claire don’t mind that their husbands are gone, but when the head of the crew, Little Jackie (Myk Watford), doesn’t live up to his promise to take care of them while their husbands do time at Rikers Island, the three women develop a plan which not only puts money in their pockets and food on their plates, but gets them control of Hell’s Kitchen. The bigger you get, the more attention you receive, and soon they find themselves on the radar of Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp), the head of the Italian mob in Brooklyn, Federal Agent Gary Silvers (Common), and three role-shifted husbands. It’s going to take all Kathy, Ruby, and Claire have to keep what they’ve built and it’s a good thing they’ve had a lifetime of battles to prepare for this war.
Let’s get this out of the way – The Kitchen may be an adaptation of a comic, but this is no kid’s movie. Sharing more in common with 2005’s Sin City and 2017’s Logan than 2016’s Deadpool, gone are the tights, safe spaces, and guaranteed happy endings. Beyond the usual cursing and violence that goes along with crime films, there’s also spousal abuse, executions, and dismemberments, though they’re not graphically depicted. The only soft spots come from Kathy, Ruby, and Claire, not because they are women, but because of the reasons why they do what they do. As presented, the men in their lives and, by extension, the Irish mob, are only interested in gathering power so they can pretend to be kings rather than to do something of use. These women, on the other hand, view what they do — protection grifts, extortion, murder — as a way of protecting and bettering Hell’s Kitchen. Violence is a tool in the kit, one of many, and is used frequently by the women as a last resort, whereas the men are presented as always quick to choose that first. This is the most obvious area in which The Kitchen separates itself from other crime thrillers and it allows the narrative to facilitate some examination of the social dynamic between women and men. Though gender equality is not as evenly balanced today, in the ‘70s, a woman running a gang was not only unheard of but was considered absurd. Second-wave feminism may have begun in the ‘60s and started to lose its momentum in the late ‘70s, but the effects of Gloria Steinem’s words still ring among the people. In a moment not out of character for the time or the story, Alfonso’s wife Maria (Annabella Sciorra) offers her support of what the three women are doing. It’s a show of solidarity from another woman subservient to a man in full awareness of her value, even if her husband is ignorant of it. That said, this particular aspect of women’s liberation is not explored as much as it’s shown. In fact, that seems to be Berloff’s modus operandi, which frequently works to elevate the story.
In the opening of the film, the three women are introduced in their homes with their husbands, Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), Rob (Jeremy Bobb), and Kevin (James Badge Dale), before they leave for the job that sends them away. In order to keep the momentum going, each couple is shown only briefly interacting, but it tells us everything we need to know about their relationships and about the women themselves. Kathy’s in a loving, supportive marriage, Claire’s is abusive, and Ruby’s is mutually disrespectful. Though brief, this serves as the foundation for everything to come. Later, as the women are starting to come into their own, there’s a particularly striking sequence that’s equally telling. After calling in their old friend Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson) to perform an execution, they all gather in a bathroom so that the three can listen as he walks them through how to prepare the body for disposal in the Hudson. Through precise angling, Berloff only shows what we need to see of the corpse, never dipping into horrid as the situation is already fairly macabre. Instead, Berloff mostly focuses on the three’s reactions to the process: Kathy’s quick exit, Ruby slowly following behind, and Claire’s unblinking fascination before she herself kneels next to the tub to help. The staging of these sequences enables Berloff to gauge the internal journeys of each character, each of which are the tethers that keep the audience emotionally connected to The Kitchen. If the audience doesn’t care about their choices, then it doesn’t matter what happens to them — fictitious or not.
The one thing that may stunt some audience reactions is the tone of the film. Based on the marketing, The Kitchen appears to be a jaunty tale of female-empowerment. Now, it is that, but it’s not without its deeper, darker moments that proliferate throughout the film. Some may shock, where others may induce cheers, but none line up with the more up-beat tone of the trailers. Impressively, The Kitchen doesn’t hold back, especially when it comes to addressing race and class. Some of this comes in the form of Kathy’s relationship with her father Larry (Wayne Duvall) as they argue over the options for immigrants and their children, but most of it comes from Ruby. The best part of The Kitchen is the revelation that she’s more than a token as she is one of only two Black characters in a mostly all-white production. It’s hard for women, but there’s no denying it’s harder for minority women. In this regard, Haddish steals virtually every scene she’s in, abstaining from the high-energy comedic performance audiences expect to deliver a frequently powerful, yet reserved performance which convincingly presents Ruby as an uncanny force.
Whether audiences are aware of the comic origins or they’re just in the mood for a good crime thriller, The Kitchen delivers on the entertainment it promises. McCarthy grounds the film, once again demonstrating that, even if audiences love her comedies, her best work comes from the dramas. Haddish is fantastic and engaging, but Moss is particularly amazing. Her performance as Claire is fascinating, terrifying, and a little cleansing. Claire’s arc is one of self-agency as she leaves a brutal marriage and learns to protect herself. Pairing her with Gabriel might seem strange at first (he’s clearly a sociopath), except the breadcrumbs are laid forth that he’s a veteran, which means he’s a Vietnam Vet. He’s been through the grinder and came home, making him the perfect teacher for Claire and the perfect weapon for the three. Of the things that may rankle audiences more than others is the seemingly heavy-handed and repetitious exploration of feminism, but it’s as narratively true of the era the story takes place as it is today. In the end, though, The Kitchen is a strong feature directorial-debut from Andrea Berloff with a cast capable of delivering the goods: drama, suspense, and action – all with a killer ’70s soundtrack. Sometimes, that’s really all we need.
In theaters August 9th, 2016.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.