Faithfully restored in CG “glory,” 1970’s Hell’s Kitchen offers gangsterland dreams of a women-led outfit thriving outside the laws. These women aren’t prey to the whims of violent men. Instead, they are the oncoming gale of gun fire, throwing their magnetic curses to their misogynist foes and their crooked business partners, and redefining their near unforgiving roles as mother, provider, and sexual object in a patriarchal world. To live in such a world would be exciting, indeed. Andrea Berloff in her directorial debut The Kitchen, creates such a universe for an unfortunately tonally and narratively inconsistent film.
The Kitchen opens with three women: Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Hadish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss, who has the best performance here) — and their respective husbands, Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James), Kevin (James Badge Dale), and Rob (Jeremy Bobb). Each woman exists within their precarious role as spouse to their criminal partner. In a scene reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s Widows, the three men are caught in a job gone wrong. However, rather than their fate ending in death, they’re sent to prison for three years. With their wives dependent upon their husbands’ gangland family — Kevin’s racist and caustic mother Helen (Margo Martindale), providing a pittance for an allowance, the three women decide to go into business together and conquer the crime infested Irish neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen.
Much like Widows, Berloff’s initially creates intriguing dynamics between her female leads. Kathy, a sharp stay at home mom, finds her priorities with raising her children and her independence. Ruby, unabashedly quick to the point, receives much of the racist scorn from Helen. And Claire, a victim of spousal abuse, spends much of the film learning to fight for herself. Each person breaks out of their shell. Kathy uses her once concealed wits to make alliances with local businesses. The women will fill a void, offering the type of protection the male-dominated outfit refuses to provide. Ruby acts as an enforcer. And Claire, with the reemergence of her psychotic love interest Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), becomes a vigilante killer who relishes murdering violent men and disposing of their bodies. Though one instance, against someone who is clearly mentally ill, feels needlessly cold blooded.
Unfortunately for Berloff, these elements never become cohesive. Instead they tonally flip on a whim. One moment someone is talking on the phone, the next they meet their snappy and bloody demise. These harsh explosions of violence are meant to emulate Scorsese’s classic gangland flicks, but the violence lacks refinement, appearing impulsive. We don’t live with the characters long enough for the upticks in rage to work. In fact, these women rarely appear together. When Claire and Gabriel become an item, her entanglement with the group becomes surprisingly estranged. Meanwhile, Ruby goes on a one-woman crusade to build a Black financial empire, and Kathy tries to win the approval of her well-to-do father. The individual elements and motivations consume the film’s 103 minute run time at a rapid pace, but toward almost no usable ends. One feels if the film was nearer to Widows‘s 130 minute span, the dynamics between characters might find fertile ground. Instead, their later conflicts buckle under the weight of an outlandish plot.
With no beginning, middle, or end, The Kitchen confusedly runs aground. By the time the film’s big twist occurs, a moment with almost no setup except within the director’s mind, we come to assume that Berloff has no idea what story she has, if any. The turn heaps on layers of artificiality to an already labored depiction of New York circa 1978, a recreation reliant on CG imaginings of skylines and block-length surroundings. The initial dreamland crumbles into feigned fairy tale when one wonders why the sun shines so unnaturally bright and the yellow taxis appear brand new. Like a simulation, Berloff gets everything right, yet the pictorial perfection enlivens us to the facsimile. About the only element that works is Sarah Edwards’s chic costume designs.
The reek you smell from the The Kitchen overpowers you with the scent of missed opportunity. Even the subplots of Brooklyn crime boss Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp, who does the most with the least), detective Gary Silvers (Common), and Claire’s Gabriel rot like the unused odds and ends left behind by a Friday dinner. The Kitchen, which wants to make a bold statement about female empowerment, ultimately never says anything that’s not lost in the gale of gunfire. With a screenwriting credit for Straight Outta Compton, we know Berloff has a story within her, but its just not this one, not yet.