Sometimes a feature comes along which defies classification. As most know, the summer movie season feeds on marketing. Big budget tent poles, sequels and franchises all kill at this time a year. This week, The Kitchen hits theaters, and the gangster film, comic book hybrid seems to have stumped all attempts to classify it. Is this something up your alley? Ultimately, what do you need to know before checking out The Kitchen?
The Kitchen follows Claire (Elisabeth Moss), Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) as three women who find themselves alone when their husbands are arrested after a botched robbery attempt. When it becomes clear that the “Family” (read: Irish mafia) isn’t going to provide the help they were expecting, they strike out on their own. While 1979 is very much a “man’s world”, they resolve to beat the boys at their own game. Writer Andrea Berloff makes her directorial debut working with her own script.
If this name feels like it’s coming out of left field, it pretty much is. The first trailer dropped early in 2019, but since then, the feature largely received the cold shoulder from studio marketing. In a big budget summer with some of the most advertising heavy films under performing, it’s thoroughly disappointing that The Kitchen is seemingly being ignored by its own studio.
The Kitchen is based on a DC graphic novel of the same name, penned by Ollie Masters. As the narrative plays out on-screen, Berloff has a blast playing in the decidedly complicated world of the narrative. The script dives fully into the almost classic gangster story. At times, the movie is a gritty love-letter to the films of old with references to films like The Godfather tying it to the genre.
However, Berloff easily flips the tropes on their heads, bringing the slightest hint of subversion to the narrative. The gangster film, as viewers know it, has topped marquees for more than 90 years, featuring a usually disenfranchised hero rising above his accepted station to a position of power through a life of crime. The Godfather, Public Enemy, Little Cesar, White Heat… the years may pass, but the stories remain the same. In her script, Berloff changes one important fact, this time our heroes are women. The questions of economy and class are all still present, but for the first time, the story starts when the typical gangster is locked up. What would Kay’s story have looked like if she was the focus of The Godfather and not Michael? This is the question at the root of The Kitchen.
It is this treatment of gender which manages to be the film’s most fascinating element and likely toughest challenge. The Kitchen is not about the boys. The women’s husbands (Brian D’Arcy James, James Badge Dale and Jeremy Bobb) play their roles, but are little more than caricatures of tragic and brutish 1970s disenfranchised masculinity. D’Arcy James stands out in the group, bringing a tragic likability to to his performance. However, none of the characters are present enough to make a mark, and this is really the point. This isn’t their story.
The only man who manages to propel himself out of the muck is hitman Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson). It is quickly made clear that the mob assassin is a struggling veteran (like many men of era) and he has definite problems with PTSD. Gleeson hones in on this, playing the role with a disaffected flatness. However, his role crosses with the equally traumatized Claire (Moss). The two performers work incredibly well together, bringing the quirkiest, yet most likable relationship to the screen. The actors bring a lot of chemistry, and you want to see these kids make it work.
At the same time, Elisabeth Moss brings her A-game to the movie bringing a complex and almost disturbingly relatable (and likable) character arc. The combination of the weight of her plot line with Moss’ skill as a performer allow Claire to leap off the screen. Even as she reaches some real quirky depths in her portrayal, it’s easy to like her and the audience actively roots for her to succeed.
Haddish and McCarthy are equally good, with both taking a gigantic step away from their comedic roots. Both shine as they explore different elements of 1970s culture in their portrayals. Haddish brings a powerful take on a woman of color trying to fit in the insular Irish culture of Hells Kitchen. She brings such a confidence and strength to her character that it’s exciting to think how she’ll continue to grow as a performer outside of comedy.
The film’s visual aesthetic is as complicated as its narrative tone. The Kitchen manages to not only emphasize the grittiness of New York in the 1970s, yet it also absolutely relishes the opportunity to play with the stylized elements of the iconic decade. This is the era of disco, and Berloff crafts cinematic moments which are flashy, artistic and almost comic book like in nature. Everything works together, serving once again to tie The Kitchen into history, while still letting it stand out on its own.
Ultimately, The Kitchen is a fascinating movie which proves difficult to classify. While it loudly proclaims its relationship to DC comics, this is more than simply a comic book movie. This is more than a gangster picture. In her cinematic take on the graphic novel, director Andrea Berloff crafts a unique and subversive take on the classic gangster genre. Check this one out if you get a chance.
The Kitchen is now playing in theaters around the country.