When it was first announced, The Kitchen was a buzzy prospect. With comedy-turned-drama kingpin Melissa McCarthy joining Girls Trip breakout Tiffany Haddish and The Handmaid’s Tale star Elisabeth Moss as part of a zeitgeisty trio of leading ladies, the stage was set for a very special crime thriller. The Kitchen doesn’t hit the heights it was expected to scale, but this is a deeply unusual film and one that has plenty of flashes of hard-edged genius.
McCarthy, Haddish, and Moss play the wives of Irish gangsters operating in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of New York City at the tail end of the 1970s. When their husbands are arrested by an FBI agent (Common, in another fun role for him), they decide to step up and take over their protection racket, which is suffering from months of unpaid bills. It turns out that the wives are pretty darn good at it and, bizarrely, the local community is very happy with their work. Meanwhile, ruthless enforcer Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson) returns from self-imposed exile and quickly forms a romantic bond with Moss’s character: Claire.
The tone of The Kitchen is wildly inconsistent, at times playing to the inherent comic ability of the main cast while also indulging in grotesque body horror and complex criminal machinations. It’s at its most interesting when seasoned screenwriter Andrea Berloff, making her directorial debut here, allows her movie to become genuinely nasty. The bond between Gleeson and Moss, in particular, is born of a sort of shared psychopathy and is given edges both tender and twisted by the two performers, who are clearly enjoying the material.
McCarthy, too, showcases many of the dramatic aspects of her work that made Can You Ever Forgive Me? an Oscar-bothering success earlier this year. Her character firmly believes that their work is morally righteous, despite its criminal elements, and so much of the third act drama comes from her becoming increasingly out of her depth as she realises how cutthroat the world she has entered can be. Haddish, meanwhile, is icy and ruthless in a role that’s deliciously meaty for her and suggests she has plenty of quality dramatic performances in her back pocket.
But despite the impressive work of the central trio, the script is so uneven that it inevitably tips the film over on numerous occasions. Huge passages of time pass by without any significant incident, only for a hurried montage to compress elements of excitement into a brief segue. Adapted from a DC graphic novel, there’s a problem with the script’s pacing, as if it’s not quite sure whether it wants to emphasise its status as a gritty crime thriller, or as a female-led story – “good for you, all Gloria Steinem and shit,” says one admiring character.
The Kitchen does rather overplay its hand on the gender politics, opening with an on-the-nose rendition of ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ and focusing heavily on ‘girl power’ moments that seem rather at odds with the moral ambiguity that makes these characters compelling. Given that the more nuanced and obviously superior Hustlers is in cinemas at the moment, managing to construct protagonists who are defiant and empowered while also being obviously in the wrong, The Kitchen‘s shortcomings are placed in even sharper focus than they might have been a few weeks ago.
But there’s enough in The Kitchen that works to make it a viable cinema trip. There’s a real thrill to seeing three of the best female performers on the planet sharing a screen in roles that, for at least two of them, are definitely against the grain. It has visual style and a killer soundtrack – a scene set to the opening of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ is a highlight – as well as an impressive undercurrent of twisted relish at the excess of the underworld.
It might not be a take on 70s New York that rivals Scorsese, but it’s one that has sharp enough teeth to take a real bite of the crime thriller cherry.
Dir: Andrea Berloff
Scr: Andrea Berloff
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, Jeremy Bobb, Margo Martindale, Myk Watford, Bill Camp, Common, Annabella Sciorra
Prd: Michael De Luca, Marcus Viscidi
DOP: Maryse Alberti
Music: Bryce Dessner
Run time: 102 mins
The Kitchen is in UK cinemas now.