The Kitchen invites several comparisons to last year’s Widows. Both center on a group of women who are married to criminals. When their husbands exit the picture, the wives step in to clean up the mess. Although respect doesn’t come to them easily, the ladies emerge as more powerful than their husbands ever were. From a narrative standpoint, The Kitchen doesn’t take as many chances as Widows did and thus doesn’t have as many surprises. Nevertheless, this is still a solid crime drama carried by the intense direction of Andrea Berloff, an infectious soundtrack, and a well-oiled, women-led ensemble.
Based on the Vertigo comic miniseries by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, the film sets itself in 1978 just as the second-wave feminist era was winding down. Trouble starts cooking in Hell’s Kitchen when the Feds put three mobsters behind bars, leaving three housewives desperate for money. Melissa McCarthy’s Kathy is the only one genuinely upset to see her husband incarcerated, although her father always felt she could do better. Tiffany Haddish’s Ruby never much cared for her husband and has often felt like an outcast in the Irish neighborhood, being the only African America. She maintains an especially contentious relationship with her cold mother-in-law (Margo Martindale), who seemingly has the mob in her pocket. Since her husband was a ruthless wife beater, Elisabeth Moss’ Claire can barely contain her smile when he’s carted off to the slammer.
When the mob refuses to give them sufficient funds, the trio decides to take matters into their own hands. They find some muscle in Domhnall Gleeson’s Gabriel, who shows them the proper way to cut up a body and send it off to sea. Soon enough, all the local businesses are paying the ladies for protection and the mob flourishes like never before. They even find themselves negotiating with a rival Italian mob boss (Bill Camp), but the competition is the least of their problems. The real threat is within their own crime family as the ladies become skeptical of each other and their followers are forced to take sides. Loyalties are tested, lives are lost, and nobody walks away with clean hands.
In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy revealed an untapped dramatic side that earned her an Oscar nomination. She continues to expand her range here as a loving wife and mother suddenly forced to take on a much more dangerous role. In due course, Kathy not only finds that she’s an efficient criminal, but also capable of more than she ever imagined. Haddish, who has almost exclusively done comedies up until this point, is another pleasant surprise. Haddish’s tongue is so sharp that she practically pierces people with every word coming out of her mouth. Moss emerged as an unlikely badass on The Handmaid’s Tale and she brings that same energy to this role as a woman who’s done being slapped around. Upon getting her first taste of bloodlust, Claire comes to savor each life she takes.
Berloff previously worked on the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Straight Outta Compton and she shows great promise in her directorial debut. She creates a gritty yet vibrant ambiance that places the audience at the end of the 1970s, just as Quentin Tarantino transported us back to the late 60s in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. What really holds Berloff’s film together, however, is the ingenious casting. The three leads naturally blend into their roles and breathe life into a film that might’ve been by the numbers otherwise. While it is unique to see a mob movie that’s told from a female perspective, The Kitchen doesn’t deviate too far from the tropes we’ve seen in similar crime stories. Every time we start veering into familiar territory, however, McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss are thankfully there to remind us why we bought a ticket. Their chemistry and transformative performances ultimately make for an offer that’s hard to refuse.