FILM REVIEW – THE KITCHEN. With Elisabeth Moss, Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Domhnall Gleeson, Common. Written and directed by Andrea Berloff. Rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual content. 102 minutes.
Genre movies can be the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. Some are outstanding works in themselves, but even a middling one can have its pleasures, among them being that you can ignore the conventional plot and see what variation the filmmakers and cast bring to the project. That’s the case with THE KITCHEN, part of the gangster sub-genre of women gangsters.
Although often merely serving as adjuncts to the male characters, films where women were equal partners or even led the gang go back to such movies as “Lady Scarface” (1941), “Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and “Bloody Mama” (1970). More recent examples include “Set It Off” (1996) and last year’s “Widows.” With “The Kitchen,” writer/director Andrea Berloff focuses on the arcs of the three main characters.
It’s the late ‘70s in Hell’s Kitchen, a rough part of New York City near Times Square which, at that time, was the base for the homegrown Irish mob. A robbery goes wrong and the husbands of the three principal women are all off to prison. For two of them it’s a relief. Claire (Elisabeth Moss) regularly faces physical abuse from her thuggish husband, while Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) is an African American woman who has married into the Irish American family that runs the local mob. While her husband is behind bars his even nastier brother takes over. Only Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) seems to actually care for her husband and the father of her two children.
When their payments from the mob prove woefully inadequate to pay the bills, they decide to go into business for themselves, taking over the local protection racket. It happens a little too quickly, but they soon find themselves with plenty of money as well as local businesses and workers happy to pay them for actually providing something in return. Naturally this doesn’t sit well with Ruby’s brother-in-law, nor with the Brooklyn-based Mafia boss.
As a crime film it’s a mild diversion, but nothing special. As a metaphor for women struggling to find a place in the world, it takes some surprising turns. When Gabriel (Domnall Gleeson), a hit man with previous ties to the local mob shows up and offers to work with the women, Ruby and Kathy get squeamish when he shows them how to carve up a body for disposal. It’s the mousy Claire who is fascinated and finds herself wanting to learn more. Each of the three has to overcome those wanting to keep them subservient, whether it’s Ruby’s mother-in-law (the formidable Margo Martindale) or Kathy coming not to care what her husband or father think of what she’s become.
That’s what raises “The Kitchen” above the level of a potboiler: within the context of its gangster genre roots, it examines the choices women make and the consequences of those decisions as they transform both their relationships and themselves. ***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.