Release Date(s)2019 (November 5, 2019)
Studio(s)New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures (Warner Home Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C-
The Kitchen isn’t about cooking or restaurants or chefs. It’s a darkly satiric film about three housewives who seize an opportunity to empower themselves in the risky world of crime. The “kitchen” of the title refers to Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s West Side.
The time is the late 1970s. When their husbands, members of a local Irish gang, are imprisoned, their wives are left adrift. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) has two kids and no idea how they’re going to survive. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) is married to the son of the gang’s matriarch (Margo Martindale) and hates both her controlling husband and her horrific mother-in-law. Claire (Elisabeth Moss) has been repeatedly abused by her husband, physically and emotionally, and her self-esteem is reduced to nothing.
When they realize that their husbands’ gang isn’t going to take care of them, financially or otherwise, they join forces and discover that the gang, which runs a protection racket, is not looking after the small businesses that pay up. They take over by providing the services they promise, and find they’re raking in more cash than their husbands ever did. But their success draws the attention of the Italian mob from Brooklyn, which is not keen on competition.
The screenplay, based on the DC Comics graphic series by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, moves along with considerable unexplained developments. The women seem to get the swing of things and transform rather quickly from submissive dependents into tough negotiators handy with intimidation and guns. One character, ex-gang member Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson) literally pops into the film to join the women’s cause and develops a romantic attraction to Claire.
The women’s roles are the best written, and each of the three characters has her own interesting story. The male characters, with the exception of O’Malley, are standard gangster flick clichés on hand merely to further the plot. Only Bill Camp as Brooklyn mob kingpin Alfonso Coretti provides a fairly original portrayal of a man with power. Soft-spoken, immaculately dressed, and given to speaking in full sentences, there’s no doubt he can order a hit instantly but prefers to negotiate and know his adversaries.
McCarthy and Haddish, best known for comedy, turn in solid dramatic performances while Moss, best known for TV’s Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, shows the widest range as her character transforms from a weak, frightened woman to someone who relishes her new role as badass. A scene in which O’Malley mentors them on how to dispose of a body is particularly memorable. As the three women observe the dismemberment of a corpse (not shown), Kathy and Ruby can’t bear to watch and leave the room. Only Claire remains, following instructions and eager to participate.
Character actress Martindale turns in an icy performance as Helen O’Carroll, the woman who basically controls the other women’s lives, even while her son and his cohorts are in jail. She has the respect of the gang members, likes her power, and wields it mercilessly. It looks like she hasn’t cracked a smile in decades.
Director Andrea Berloff admirably captures the feel of New York in the 1970s with period vehicles and recreations of the look of the area 40 years ago. There’s a gritty feel to the film which works nicely for the subject matter. She’s balanced the stories of the three women effectively so each has appropriate screen time.
Rated R for violence and strong language, The Kitchen is similar in plot to Widows. In both films, wives of bad guys must make it on their own. Both films focus on the helplessness of women without marketable skills who turn to the only means of earning a living they know. Though Kathy, Ruby, and Claire are lawbreakers, their husbands are so reprehensible that we sympathize with them. The female performances are strong, the pace is brisk, and the characters develop in interesting ways.
The Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Interiors of the women’s apartments and several barroom scenes are dark and heavily shadowed. Exterior night scenes are shot on dimly lit streets where characters wear dark clothing and blend in with their surroundings. A memorable night scene shows Ruby crossing 42nd Street against the brightly lit movie marquees, rows of neon-illuminated shops, and several lanes of traffic stopped for a red light. In daytime street scenes, piles of uncollected garbage lie next to the curb and buildings, with lots of litter scattered on sidewalks. Production design and costuming nicely recreate a run-down, tawdry section of Manhattan. Period storefronts replicate the types of stores that commonly lined the Hell’s Kitchen streets in late 70’s New York City.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Other available tracks include English Descriptive Audio and Dolby Digital French. Subtitle options include French, Spanish, and English for the hearing impaired. Dialogue is distinct throughout, even when actors speak softly or under their breath, as Kathy does when asking for more money for the wives of the incarcerated men. Ambient noise of traffic, car horns, police sirens, and general street hubbub is mixed smoothly with dialogue and Bryce Dessner’s jazz-infused score. Songs heard throughout the film include It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World (Etta James), Hard Times (Baby Huey & The Baby Sitters), Simple Man (Lynyrd Skynyrd), It’s In Your Blood (Linda Hopkins), Just Me and You (The Dreamliners), The Chain (The Highwomen), and Gold Dust Woman (Fleetwood Mac).
Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release include 2 behind-the-scenes making-of featurettes and a deleted scene. There are 12 scene selection chapters for easy access to specific sequences. A Digital code on a paper insert is included within the package.
Running Hell’s Kitchen – Director Andrea Berloff was inspired by the DC comic book series by Ollie Masters because it was a rarity—“a woman-centric crime story.” Producer Michael DeLuca likens the tone of the film to crime pulp fiction of the 30s and 40s. Production designer Shane Valentino notes that four things are essential to pull off a period film successfully—period-appropriate cars, graphic design of storefronts, costumes, and hairstyles. Twenty-five storefronts on both sides of a block on 9th Avenue in Manhattan had to be “dressed” to look like the late 1970s. Fake trash was strewn everywhere.
Taking Over the Neighborhood – The Kitchen is not only about the three central female characters but also about New York City in a specific era. As Melissa McCarthy notes, “Hell’s Kitchen in the 70s was a tough, tricky place.” Filming was done in 4 of the 5 boroughs. According to one of the producers, “There was a heart and soul to the city that was pretty magical.” New York City at the time was on the verge of bankruptcy and “things had gone to rack and ruin” with piles of garbage everywhere because of an extended sanitation workers’ strike. The city was divided according to different ethnic groups. Cabs and street signage were different from today’s and had to be replicated, and phone booths were installed. Many local residents had never seen one except in a movie.
Deleted Scene – Ruby enters a diner where husband Kevin is eating. She sits down. He says that he’s looking forward to sleeping in his own bed. Ruby responds, “Will I be in that bed?”
– Dennis Seuling