The Kitchen is not the disaster which it has been heralded it as. As a critic, I do not read reviews for films I have on my docket until I have written my own. Still, it is impossible to not see headlines and tweets of other reviews. Even my fellow co-workers at my day job, upon hearing what movie I was to see, could not help but tell me how it has an abysmally low score on Rotten Tomatoes. In the end, I found myself baffled at the “bad press” because I sat there thoroughly impressed and more importantly, entertained.
By no means a masterpiece, Andrea Berloff has written and directed a thoroughly entertaining and at times visceral entry into the gangster genre. The Kitchen is based off a graphic novel by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, unread by me. Berloff, herself a writer, and first-time director has adapted the material into a lean and mean treatise on the violence men harbor towards women, bundled into a genre picture oozing the 70’s, the period of which it is set.
The way in which she subtly and viciously subverts the sometimes all to hollow “girl power” in most Hollywood fare can sometimes be jarring. On the surface it may seem about “sisterhood” in the end it is revealed to be much more complicated. Their strengthened bond comes not being allies but from accepting the other for who they are and shared experiences.
Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) while in of themselves three stereotypes, Berloff recognizes the inherent difficulties of these three being able to work together. While the characters may be thin and loosely defined, Berloff gives us enough to understand when, where, and why the friction starts.
McCarthy’s Kathy is a loving wife and mother, who worries when her husband Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James) leaves for work. Contrast her with Haddish’s Ruby, the black wife of the white Irish gang leader Kevin (James Badge Dale). Ruby is treated with thinly veiled contempt by her mother-in-law, Helen (Margo Martindale), and seems to harbor only slightly more respect from Kevin himself. Resentful, and belittled, she is the opposite of Kathy.
But compared to Moss’s Claire, they seem like towering women of authority. Berloff’s first shot of Claire is of her crying and bleeding from the blows of her husband Rob (Jeremy Bobb). Kathy and Ruby may not be well respected but their husbands would hardly lift a hand. At least if they would Ruby or Kathy would fight back.
The plot is quick and to the point. One night the husbands rob a bar in order to get the money together to start a loan shark business. They are caught by an FBI agent Gary (Common) but before backup arrives they assault him only to be caught by the cops in the act. The men sent to prison, the women are left alone but are promised by Martindale’s Helen they will be taken care of. She appoints a new head of the Irish mob, Little Jackie Quinn (Myk Watford).
The three ladies are given so little they confront Jackie only to discover people aren’t paying so they have little to give them. In any other gangster movie, the plot would have Little Jackie lean harder or grow violent towards the store clerks and restaurant owners, to get his money. But Jackie is lazy and craven, more taken with his title than his actual job. The ladies, however, begin to devise amongst themselves a way to make money.
Talking to the people who haven’t paid they discover, they have stopped because “What’s the point? I pay for protection and I’ve been robbed three times. Where’s Jackie huh?”
The Kitchen is at times blatantly political while at other times deals it’s cards slyly. One of the running themes is that Kathy, Ruby, and Claire, are not so much feared, but that they actually do the job which is expected. They are met with a constant refrain of “Why pay? No one ever shows up to do what I pay for?” Unlike their male counterparts, the ladies understand the importance of community.
Throughout it all, a threat of violence silently pulses beneath the surface. Introduced by Claire’s introduction but brought to roaring life by Gabriel’s (Domhnall Gleeson) entrance. Little Jackie furious at how the women have undermined him jumps Claire in an alley and attempts to rape her. Berloff frames the scene so we see Claire’s profile, but only her face. Crying she pleads only to have her words drowned out but a sudden gunshot. Blood spurts across her face as Jackie collapses and the camera pulls back to reveal Gabriel.
Berloff uses violence in such a way in which it has an almost visceral effect. Much like Martin Scorsese she often cuts away right at the moment of impact to give us the illusion we have seen the violent act. The implication is more jarring than the actual act itself for it allows the tension to build in such a way as to make our nerves tense.
The problems of The Kitchen are borne from a director feeling out the lay of the land as opposed to anything inherently wrong with the story itself. Though the beginning of the film is choppy and sometimes clunky in its exposition. As the opening credits roll a cover of It’s a Man’s World plays giving us a sense of foreboding of a sort of being too obvious. A lack of subtlety is not necessarily a bad thing but sometimes it can be grating or be a sign of either a director’s lack of confidence in either themselves or in the audience.
Moments such as when Moss’s Claire tells Gabriel how she feels bad he had to save her. As a woman, she should have been able to take care of herself. I’m betting it’s Berloff showing how sometimes toxic masculinity can affect women as well in insidious ways, such as being able to take care of themselves without the help or support of others. But the dialogue is so clunky that seems as if she’s trying to say she understands Claire has no agency.
In a weird way though this moment defines Claire. Not the rape itself, but the realization she needs to fight back. She and Gabriel share an affinity for violence and begin to develop a fascinating relationship. At one point where Gabriel shows the ladies how to cut up a body, the other two are clearly sickened or queasy, while Claire looks on in rapt attention.
The tensions are clear early on but it is not until further up the ladder do they become apparent. Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp) is the head of a rival gang in Brooklyn. He asks them, “What are you going to do when your husbands get out?” They may run their neighborhood and be on their way up but they are still just women doing this without their husband’s permission or blessings. The 1970s were a time of great social change but some things never change.
Coretti’s wife confides in Kathy, “They always ‘eff us. Every time. They can’t stand to see us have it all. They always ‘eff us.”
It helps that whatever faults and hiccups Berloff’s script may have Mccarthy, Moss, and Haddish, manage to carry the film to the midway point. Eventually, The Kitchen clicks and it goes from being an interesting movie to a good one. Maybe it’s the strange sweet but dark relationship between Claire and Gabriel which subtly explores how sometimes the darkness in two people can connect them.
Claire’s growth from abuse survivor to avenging wraith with her gun-toting boyfriend is somewhat mesmerizing. Moss brings a wounded animal rage to Claire. As the film moves along to watch how the way she sits and stands changes. Or even how she walks down the street. She is discovering herself and though most men might be terrified, she isn’t, and neither is Gabriel.
Berloff seems to be uninterested in exploring the tropes typically found in the genre. Instead, she chooses to focus on the unrequited joy and strength that comes from a woman choosing herself for once as opposed to constantly making sacrifices. The joy of self permeates every frame of The Kitchen.
Maryse Alberti shoots The Kitchen outside of the male gaze. Of all the progressions that have been made in the film, industry cinematographers are still stubbornly mostly men. But Alberti’s lack of sexualization keeps the film from feeling like an homage. Berloff and Alberti are telling a story about the dames and molls who are normally backlit glamorously smoking a cigarette with bedroom eyes as they hang off the male character.
Alberti eschews the trend of darkly lit alleyways and dimly lit rooms. Instead, she goes for an intentionally drab and dreary look. Far from romanticizing Hell’s Kitchen she shoots it as it is, runs down in places, gentrified, in others. The style she’s chosen is a strange mixture of cinema verite and haunting imagery. Such as when the ladies show up to Coretti’s for a meeting.
Her camera hangs above the car as we watch the ladies exit the vehicle. She slowly zooms in, the threat of the unknown literally looming over them. Contrasted with the scenes in which they talk in Coretti’s office. Brightly lit gaudily decorated, Alberti keeps it so where the switches between styles are never showing. It is the style of the emotional aesthetic, designed more to make us more empathetic and make the actions more visceral.
The Kitchen is messy at times with its characters seeming undercooked or too thin. But for every misstep it makes it takes an interesting one. Haddish’s Ruby, for example, is woefully underwritten. It doesn’t help Berloff’s attempt at commenting on Haddish’s blackness is clumsy at best. But as a man who has sat through Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Best of Enemies, and a host of movies which don’t even bother having PoC of any kind, I can say with some expertise, there are degrees of clumsiness. Berloff’s clumsiness, it feels, stems from her fear of overstepping her bounds as a white woman.
With Ruby, she explores how so much of black experience with gangs is cinematically demonized while white experiences with gangs, or the mafia, films are often cinematically evangelized. Furthermore, we learn from her mother that Ruby was too “soft” as a child. “I had to beat the softness out of you.” Much like Claire she too has known abuse except for her she took a different meaning from it.
At times it seems Berloff forgets McCarthy until the second half of the film. Her Kathy goes from housewife to breadwinner, to Queen of her fiefdom, in a way that isn’t always smooth but is always believable. McCarthy plays characters like Kathy in her sleep, but much like her other performances, she finds a new layer. For Kathy, it’s realizing that she deserves everything she has because she’s worked for it.
In an era in which most worship Tarantino for his instantly recognizable style, filmmakers like Berloff are to be cherished. Her style seems intimately tied to the story itself. Her and Alberti seem quite happy with documenting the events before them in a way which lends less to theatricality and more to a polished grittiness.
Though choppy and too obvious at times, Berloff nonetheless shows a knack for telling old stories with new voices. Inventive and subdued The Kitchen is a fascinating debut. Berloff shows us while it is a man’s world, it doesn’t have to be.