The crime drama The Kitchen wastes no time in telling the audience they’re about to see a throwback to the 1970s. If you took out the period costumes and hair, you’d recognize the time period because of how the characters curse, drink, and smoke. In her feature debut, veteran screenwriter Andrea Berloff avoids pesky hangups like restraint. She lets her impressive ensemble chew the scenery, with some moments so hard-boiled and violent they are almost funny. This kind of genre throwback could be tiresome, except there are also revisionist ideas about race, sexism and privilege. Parts of the film are excessive and borderline offensive, but they are never boring.
The opening stretch recalls Widows, another crime film with a similar premise, except Berloff’s approach is less bombastic. Three career criminals are caught by the FBI as they attempt to rob a liquor store, and after they’re sent to prison, their wives have money troubles. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) needs to support her kids, while Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) worry they cannot make rent. They live in Hell’s Kitchen, a Manhattan neighborhood run by an Irish crime family, and although the family promises they’ll “get help,” a small envelope of cash is not enough. The three women have a simple solution: they’ll help with the mob’s normal protection duties. They prove to be skilled at their jobs, to the point they get attention from rival gangs.
There is a gleeful nastiness to this material. Perhaps this attention to R-rated content is the comic’s influence: the dialogue is excessively stylized, although the actors downplay the script’s innate silliness. Once the plot kicks into motion, however, with the three women ascending through the ranks of organized crime, they are convincing avatars. Claire is the most raw – her husband abused her – so she finds kinship with the enforcer Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), who might be psychotic. As the only person of color in the operation, Ruby is more independently-minded, while Kathy sees herself as an entrepreneur within an unfair system.
A normal crime drama would focus on how Kathy, Ruby, and Claire get in over their heads. What is refreshing about The Kitchen is how it turns that idea on its head. Their biggest threat are not a rival gang – Bill Camp plays an Italian crime lord with a demure sense of rage – but the imminent return of their husbands. Instead of overtly celebrating female empowerment, the three wives look at their husbands as another problem they must be handled. Their crucial mistake is misunderstanding how male privilege can be a debilitating crutch. This plot shift mixes predictable results with some surprises, and they all lead to a sense of queasy satisfaction. Double and triple-crosses nearly make The Kitchen too busy, and while the film rushes through its plot, it is to Berloff’s credit it is (mostly) easy to follow.
The best moments in The Kitchen do not involve the rise/fall/rise arc. Instead, there are a few character scenes that drip with black humor and subtext. As Gabriel, Gleeson is an unlikely sex symbol. Watching him bond with Moss’ Claire would be heart-warming, if their common ground were anything else but murder and dismemberment. There is a deranged scene between Ruby and her mother, one that rationalizes all kinds of antisocial behavior, and its brazen defiance is the only thing that makes it bearable. Still, the most satisfying scenes involve Annabella Sciorra, who has a minor role as a mob wife. You may recall that Sciorra was raped by Harvey Weinstein, who then sabotaged her career. What she says here – and how she says it – contain a raw sense of pain and satisfaction.
The Kitchen is no one’s idea of a great film. Its music cues are obvious, it rushes through plot and some characters are so overwritten they lack any sense of humanity. Once you accept its modest ambition and gallows humor, you’ll be met with a wicked sense of fun. On top of the performances, Berloff frames her three lead actors so they are convincing as confident, no-nonsense crime lords (there is a great shot of Haddish walking through Hell’s Kitchen like she’s the queen). Films like Prince in the City and Taxi Driver took the chaotic milieu of the late 1970s, and made great art out of it. In the dog days of summer, The Kitchen eschews high art, favoring sleaze and bad taste, and still manages to be about something.