In November 2014, the first issue of DC Vertigo’s The Kitchen ran. Created by Ollie Masters and drawn by Ming Doyle, the story followed three women trying to survive in 1970’s mobland New York. With the desire for stories from a female perspective on the rise, it’s no surprise that this 8-issue series was picked up for a live-action adaption. Sitting in the director’s chair for the first time, Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton) gathered Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Tiffany Haddish (Keanu), Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale), Margo Martindale (Justified), Annabelle Scoirra (The Sopranos), and a strong supporting male cast to bring the story to life. The resulting adaptation was received more favorably by audiences than critics, a trend which is not all too uncommon, especially when expectations are so soundly conflicted. The marketing for The Kitchen suggested a rousing, action-packed crime thriller, whereas the final product is a simmering, crime drama rife with social and gender-focused commentary of the era that’s still applicable today. With The Kitchen available on digital services as of October 22nd and landing on shelves November 5th, there’s a chance for The Kitchen to find a new, less expectant audience.
When their husbands are sent to jail for a botched robbery, Kathy Brennan (McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Haddish), and Claire Walsh (Moss) are told by local Irish mob boss Little Jackie (Myk Watford) that each will be taken care of due to their husband’s loyalty. However, each woman quickly discovers that his word means very little. Soon, the women develop a plan that will not only better their lives, but all of Hell’s Kitchen. It just means going against Jackie and their husbands’ crew. With the ladies in charge, things start to improve for the better, until they get the attention of Italian mob boss Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp) across the river in Brooklyn. As threats known and unforeseen crop up, Kathy begins to wonder if they can keep hold of Hell’s Kitchen and each other without losing themselves to a life of violence.
If you want to keep things spoiler-free, you can learn more about The Kitchen by reading the theatrical release review or by skipping to the bottom where the list of bonus features are included. Otherwise, continue at your own risk.
As with all reviews, what someone appreciates or not is subjective. This shouldn’t need to be stated, yet the way people internalize their opinions versus someone else’s results in contentious interactions again and again. So let’s be honest here, the notion of another comic book adaption, especially one focused on the female perspective, can seem like pandering. And it may, if all you do is look at the surface of The Kitchen. If you’re willing to dig deeper, then you’ll see something richer. Unlike popular mob films Goodfellas and The Godfather, which track the male perspective, The Kitchen considers the view from the characters often left to the sidelines. Even the latest Martin Scorsese release, The Irishman, is catching flack for its depiction of women, even though their use is specific and measured in contrasting protagonist Frank Sheeran’s (Robert De Niro) internal ideology against a global, more moralistic view. The point is, it’s easier to dismiss a film in which the perspective of typically supporting characters are moved to the front rather than consider it. It’s easier to expel or devalue consideration, which creator Ollie Masters might say is exactly the point of the story. By simply watching the film and Berloff’s approach to the direction and story adaptation, someone could argue that is exactly her point. The Kitchen isn’t a story for the sake of telling a female-centric story to tick a box, but seeks to explore crime drama through a different lens. Especially when that lens comes from a minority or disenfranchised group, the story becomes far more loaded and, if I may be so bold, far more interesting.
There’re two areas within The Kitchen which are the most remarkable and neither are from McCarthy’s Kathy Brennan. Her’s is a strong performance which forms the film’s moral center, but it’s also the most expected take. Where the real surprises come are from Moss’s Claire and Haddish’s Ruby. Claire is presented as an emotionally and physically abused wife who’s tired of being a victim. Her plight is one that too many have dealt with and her reaction, to learn to own the violence instead of falling prey to it, isn’t too far-fetched. Nor is her character’s romance with Domhnall Gleeson’s Gabriel O’Malley. Both of these aspects land off the periphery, coming up when the main narrative requires and are pretty powerful pieces. For one, Claire is more-or-less an innocent when this all begins. Unlike Kathy, whose mother comes from the mob, and Ruby, whose capabilities are far beyond what we initially see, Claire just seems like a good person caught in a bad circumstance. Considering how broken she becomes from the abuse, the desire to take back her power, her strength, via violence is as much an empowering thing as it is a declaration of just how bad the cycle is. When we cause pain, we create more pain and so on. The fact that Claire falls in love with a man recognized for his sadistic tendencies should alarm us as it does Ruby and Kathy, yet the audience is given enough about Gabriel to acknowledge he’s a former Vietnam soldier. We don’t know what kind of person he was before serving, but that war was known to send back broken men who struggled to readjust to society. This is another subtle piece of work within Berloff’s The Kitchen. In this way, Claire and Gabriel are two birds of a father, desperately trying to find some peace within the violence as they are unable to know a life without it. The fact that Claire dies as a result of the three women trying to keep control of Hell’s Kitchen only speaks louder to the inescapabilty of breaking free of the cycle of violence inherent in mob life.
The second aspect comes from Haddish. Mostly known for her comedic roles, The Kitchen is a different turn for her and it suits her nicely, especially because the expectation of her cinematic history aids in keeping her character’s motives hidden. For some, finding out that Haddish’s Ruby has been playing a long con for years felt like a cheap trick, as though it was just another means of creating drama in a film rife with it. Except, if you look closer at The Kitchen, the view of race within Hell’s Kitchen was always at the fore-front. It’s not just how Margo Martindale’s Helen O’Carroll treated her daughter-in-law Ruby or how her husband Kevin (James Badge Dale) reacted to Ruby’s control of his crew, but how New York at that time looked at African Americans. Coming out of the Civil Rights Movement in the late ‘60s, racial tensions were as obvious then as they are now. The difference is that Ruby found herself in a prime position to destroy the Irish mob that looked down on her people from within, while also uplifting her people. This is not so different from what Kathy sought to do, except it was her own people she was trying to uplift. With a film so centered on community uplifting community, looking after their own, there should be no surprise at all that Ruby was doing the exact same thing. Without all the context, it would seem as cheap as perceived, but with that context, Ruby’s deception is not only anticipated but the only logical recourse of a woman with her intelligence and opportunity.
If there’s a legitimate gripe to be had, it’s that the bonus features are particularly sparse: two featurettes and one deleted scene. What we are offered, however, do provide some insight into the costume and set design, Berloff’s intent with the story, and how the actors engaged both together and with the story. This means we’re treated to thoughts from Berloff, the three principle cast members, plus a bit from Dale and Gleeson, cinematographer Maryse Alberti (Creed), costume designer Sarah Edwards (Ocean’s Eight), and production design from Shane Valentino (Straight Outta Compton), and even reactions from artist Ming Doyle. Whether you picked up on the little details of the character relationships, their style, or the style of the film, these two featurettes put it all on full display. It was also heartening to learn about the largely female production staff – Berloff says she hired the best people she could and they all happened to be female – and how that resonated with the cast and crew. Considering how well Berloff’s team capture the look and feel of late ‘70s New York, it’s no surprise that The Kitchen is as enveloping as it is. Even with the little tidbits provided, there’s a lingering sense that more information on the process of adaptation, of creating the story, of tackling the complicated issues of race and gender would go a long way in, perhaps, enabling the audience to garner greater appreciation for the film.
Available on digital beginning October 22nd, 2019.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning November 5th, 2019.
The Kitchen Special Features
The Kitchen Blu-ray contains the following special features:
- Running Hell’s Kitchen featurette
- Taking Over the Neighborhood featurette
- One (1) Deleted Scene
The Kitchen DVD contains the following special feature:
- Running Hell’s Kitchen featurette