'The Kitchen' Is a Not-Quite-Satisfying Revenge Fantasy Directed by Andrea Berloff
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, Margo Martindale
Published Aug 09, 2019The Kitchen is not a subtle film; it's messy, unfocused, and occasionally paints characters in broad caricature. But elevated by fantastic performances from leads Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss, it's also incredibly cathartic, a "yes please" for every woman tired of defining herself as a wife or a mother, who's tired of seeing rapists and misogynists walk around unpunished.
Based on a Vertigo comic of the same name and written and directed by Andrea Berloff, the award-winning screenwriter of Straight Outta Compton, The Kitchen follows the wives of three prominent Irish mobsters in the crime-infested Hell's Kitchen of 1978. Kathy (McCarthy) is a dedicated wife and mother growing tired of single-handedly running a household. Ruby (Haddish) is beset by racism from the Irish community and her domineering mother-in-law (Margo Martindale, magnetic as usual). And Claire (Moss) has been reduced to a cowering mess after years of abuse from her domineering husband.
When their husbands are arrested after a hit goes wrong, the three women, left without protection and threatened by their husband's associates, decide to take matters into their own hands by becoming personally responsible for collecting neighbourhood debt money. Their desire to do good in the community by protecting local businesses and residents quickly takes a dark turn, as the lines between power and responsibility start to blur.
There are moments when The Kitchen can't decide if it wants to be a dark, violent comedy in the vein of The Nice Guys, with its winking nods to late '70s fashion and musical cues (not that it wasn't gleefully fun to see two back-to-back scenes scored by Heart's "Barracuda" and Kansas's "Carry On My Wayward Son"), or an intense drama about the meaning of family and commitment, especially as a woman in a male-dominated world.
Either would have been fine angles for the film to take, but when it takes both, it's not really sure which it should land on. Dramatic moments can and do work within dark comedies, and vice-versa — but by being both at once, The Kitchen ends up giving its audience cinematic whiplash.
Kathy, Ruby, and Claire's rise to the top of the mob ladder is met with tragedy along the way, but we don't really dive deeply into the impact it has on them, nor the implications of essentially becoming murderers in the name of community betterment. Similarly, the film's comedic moments allow McCarthy, Haddish and Moss's excellent timing to shine (a particular scene in which Kathy, Ruby and Claire are taught how to dismember bodies, with the latter's fascination interplayed with the former two's mounting disgust, is a fantastic demonstration of how good all three are at telling a story with their facial expressions), but they often jump back to drama before the audience gets a chance to finish laughing.
Despite its jumbled tone, there's a lot to like about The Kitchen. It's a testament to how good McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss are that in spite of the film's missteps, all three of their characters follow engrossing character arcs — McCarthy's wavering belief in her can-do practicality, Haddish's confident swagger in the face of bigotry, and Moss's transformation from vulnerable victim to sadistic killer. At its best moments, The Kitchen recalls pulpy exploitation revenge thrillers, where women take the law into their own hands after so many male authority figures have failed and betrayed them.
It feels frustrating — and, as a woman, sadly familiar — to watch Kathy, Ruby and Claire be ignored, condescended to, catcalled, and objectified. Seeing them take swift, decisive, and violent action against the men who've wronged them and become powerful, uncompromising leaders in their own right feels undeniably cathartic. Even when they enlist the help of men like PTSD-ridden antihero Gabriel O'Malley (Domhnall Gleeson, clearly having a ton of fun) and rival Mafia boss Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp), it's very clearly on their own terms and rules.
Reading the film this way, The Kitchen's lack of focus and commitment comes off as intentional, an escapist grindhouse fantasy for every woman who's wanted payback against the patriarchy as filtered through the lens of a female filmmaker who knows what that anger feels like. It's just a shame The Kitchen didn't embrace this approach fully.