It’s two-thirds of the way through “The Kitchen” before anyone asks Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy) what, exactly, she wants.
It’s her son, at the dinner table. We’ve seen Kathy struggle and scrape by to survive, utterly sick of depending on and thanking men for her existence. We’ve seen her turn to a life of crime, wresting away control of the Irish mob in late ’70s Hell’s Kitchen while her husband is away in prison. We’ve seen her flourish in the brutal and bloody collections and protections “business” she builds with two other mob wives, the abused, broken Claire (Elisabeth Moss) and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), a black woman, an outsider.
But what does she really want? What she tells her son is she wants her kids to be in charge one day with no one to mess with them because they know their mother is the formidable Kathy Brennan.
She wants power, which is what all the women in “The Kitchen” want, even the spiteful mob madame Mrs. O’Carroll (Margo Martindale), who calls the shots and keeps her boys in charge (in name only). A desire for power is the central axis around which the characters’ actions hinge, and it’s the engine that drives them down a darker and darker path, lined with coffins. In Andrea Berloff’s directorial debut, which she also adapted from Ollie Masters’ and Ming Doyle’s comic book series, women snatch their power. But to what end?
“The Kitchen” starts with a bang, the liquor store robbery that sends husbands Kevin (James Badge Dale), Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James) and Rob (Jeremy Bobb) up the river, and it rapidly proceeds apace. Shot with a dank griminess by legendary cinematographer Maryse Alberti, the film quickly checks off every requirement of the ’70s gangster genre: some handshakes, some heavies, montages of cash stacks set to classic rock, a disco celebration party, replete with feathered hair.
“The Kitchen” feels a bit color-by-numbers in terms of the generic beats it hits, but Berloff hits each one hard. The gender flip is what distinguishes it, watching women rather than men perform the acts of brutal benevolence. Although it errs on the side of broad, the script rings true to their circumstances. The women bemoan the prison of patriarchy they’ve lived in while happily stepping into the void left by their husbands and eclipsing them in every skill of the trade: negotiation, intimidation, elimination.
McCarthy strikes just the right tone of cajoling and cruel required of a mob boss, and the scenes in which she goes toe to toe with Bill Camp as Italian mobster Alfonso Coretti are some of the best.
“The Kitchen” is chock-full of rousing girl-power lines with a trio of actresses who can deliver them with panache, but one wishes the story could back up the characters with more than just firepower. The film never sugarcoats the ugly, blood-soaked realities of gang life, but the film itself only briefly touches on the psychology behind the actions. Preoccupied with twists, “The Kitchen” doesn’t spend the time digging into the dark side of power, which corrupts absolutely.
Ultimately, what does Kathy want? Maybe, all along, it was just to be Mrs. O’Carroll, the queen of the Kitchen.
Rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual content.