Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 102 minutes
Directed by: Andrea Berloff
Writer-director Andrea Berloff’s THE KITCHEN isn’t what you’d expect from a gritty gangster movie. This slowly-percolating, character-driven story about three miffed, marginalized mafia wives who take over their prison-dwelling husbands’ jobs is not built on cheap gimmicks or overly-stylized shellac. It’s not interested in identifying itself as “GOODFELLAS, But With Girls,” or delivering a rote, predictable “rise and fall of an empire” narrative. This adaptation of the DC/ Vertigo graphic novel by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle lights its fuse early on and erupts in a powder keg. Its Scorsese-adjacent anti-heroes are placed in a Cassevetes-style playground, capturing feminine frustrations, fearlessness and ferocity.
Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Claire (Elisabeth Moss) and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) have been sidelined for years, married into the Irish mafia. However, the wives’ situations become dire once their husbands Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), Rob (Jeremy Bobb), and Kevin (James Badge Dale) are dealt a three-year prison sentence. With barely any money coming in, they formulate a plan to take over the gang’s turf in Hell’s Kitchen. Each of these oppressed women gets into the game to gain something. For Kathy, basic survival is the clear motivator, helping to feed and clothe her young kids. For Claire, it’s to express the rage that she’s had to internalize as a punching bag for men – specifically her abusive husband. For Ruby, it’s to gain the respect she’s previously lacked, from her own lousy mother to her blunt mother-in-law (Margo Martindale). And deep down inside, this trio knows they can run this town better than the men who consistently underestimate and undermine their abilities.
Naturally, the ladies are more skilled at racketeering than their male counterparts. They clean up the community, eliminating the ne’er-do-wells and riff-raff. They empower small business owners and rake in more money than ever before. The power grab has even given them confidence. Kathy discovers her voice and agency. Ruby transitions from one who’s bullied to the one doing the bullying. Claire pieces together her power by dismembering corpses, aided by soulmate Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), a shady criminal/ ex-war vet Ruby brings into their squad. But their reign of success and dash to broaden their empire’s territory draws the eye of powerful gangster Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp), who warns them their husbands are due to return sooner than expected – and probably won’t support their newfound feminism.
Berloff, making her directorial debut, subtly incorporates the energy of the time period and fuses it with the characters’ struggles. Their powerlessness is palpable – as is their inevitable ascent to the top. The women’s pressure-cooker situation is captured expertly, without much melodrama impeding it. Dark comedy underscores a few of the scenes, from Claire asking what to wear to a rival’s intense meeting, to Gabriel’s butcher lesson on dismembering a dead body.
McCarthy, Moss and Haddish all deliver compelling work, courtesy of the character-driven material. All three heroines have complete arcs and experience notable metamorphoses throughout the course of the film. Because the script gives them all moments to shine, we see new shades from each performer. Moss gives a precise performance, perfectly coating Claire’s meekness in acid. McCarthy immerses us in Kathy’s inner psyche – her tough outer shell cloaking her vulnerability and naiveté. Haddish shines a light on the hidden facets of Ruby’s resentment. Perhaps what’s most astounding is that all three of these ladies’ conflicts are properly balanced within the narrative. No female character is dealt short-shrift – not even Martindale’s chilling portrayal of a mafia momma.
That said, the film’s male characters vary greatly. While Gleeson and Camp’s characters are highlighted as fastidious allies for the girl gang, other men don’t fare as well. The three husbands are fairly one-dimensional caricatures of Terrible Men – so much so, it makes it a little difficult to believe the ladies would have fallen for them in the first place.
This is probably to show the men through the POV of their betrayed women, portraying them as abusive galoots, bumbling simps or arrogant cheaters, and as such their uselessness and expendability is impactful.
Below-the-line work is also commendable. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti’s gritty gloss adds pathos to the performances captured. Sarah Edwards’ costume designs are extremely covetable. More importantly, they serve as a visual reference tool to chart character development. Shane Valentino’s production design envelopes us in the late Seventies era. The perpetually littered city tells a silent tertiary story. Editor Christopher Tellefsen’s crisp cuts are timed to maximize dramatic impact.
Despite serving as a deflating reminder that history is cyclical and that the decades-old problems of poverty, misogyny and racism are still relevant today, Berloff’s feature bestows a resonant, genuinely empowering feeling.
THE KITCHEN is now playing.