70s New York is the backdrop for an exploration of what women can do when free of others.
It’s surprising to me that The Kitchen didn’t make more of an impact when it came out late last year. The movie, adapted from a DC/Vertigo comics series everyone should read, tells the story of three women who have to find a way to make it on their own after their mobster husbands are sent to prison for three years. The criminal organization those husbands were part of promises to take care of them, but fails to come through on that, pushing them to the edge of financial disaster. So they decide the best way to survive is to become crime bosses themselves.
The performances by stars Tiffany Haddish, Melissa McCarthy and Elizabeth Moss are all wonderful, as the three fully inhabit the characters they’re playing. And they flourish under the direction of Andrea Berloff, who builds a world of late-70s New York City that feels lived in and not dirty instead of a mocked-up Hollywood set.
There are three points from the story that particularly caught my attention and require being called out.
Each of the three women embarks on their criminal endeavor for different reasons, though those reasons undergo some evolution over the course of the story. Ruby (Haddish) wants to finally show the strength her mother tried to instill in her as a child and winds up the coldest, most vicious of the three. Claire (Moss) wants to finally show she can defend herself after years of being abused by her husband. Kathy (McCarthy) wants to help her neighborhood thrive.
While those goals bring them all together at the outset, they also pull them apart as time goes on. Ruby’s ambitions grow as she sees the power she’s accumulating as never being enough. Claire’s mission becomes more and more personal and her actions very specific to carving out a life free of abuse for herself. Kathy’s continued focus on her neighbors and family becomes even more intense, with anything outside that seeming to be a distraction from that.
In fact the movie shows that the motives they’ve adopted impact their ultimate fate.
Toxic Masculinity Is the Problem
The biggest lesson of the story is that the biggest impediment to women succeeding in the world is men.
Ruby is in a terrible marriage and continues to be held down by her mother in law after her husband goes to jail. Once he’s gone she can be as ambitious as possible and his return presents an immediate threat to her plans and so has to be eliminated.
Claire’s marriage is even worse, and his return reminds her of how weak she once was and refuses to be again. She will no longer be subjected to anyone else’s feelings and takes matters into her own hands when she’s put back in the role of victim.
Kathy’s is the story most exemplary of this problem. Her husband Jimmy is initially shown as loving and supportive, but doesn’t like his wife getting into the business. That makes sense when it seems he’s just worried about her safety. But when he’s released it becomes apparent it’s his own ego he’s most concerned about, taking steps that put the wellbeing of their entire family at risk. He simply can’t handle not being part of the operation, jealous of his now-influential wife and the power she’s claimed.
It’s the elimination of those three and others that mark important rites of passage for the women, showing how committed they are to the life they’ve chosen and the goals they have in mind. All three husbands represent different aspects of the worst parts of masculinity and how fragile it is. The one can’t feel like a man if he’s not sleeping around. The other can’t feel like a man if he’s not beating his wife. The third can’t feel like a man if he’s not the primary breadwinner.
Hope Over Nihilism
While I still haven’t seen Joker, part of that movie’s brand identity was it being a gritty, raw presentation of a fictional New York City in the throes of early-80s urban decay. The message, based on reviews of the film, seems to be that the logical result of such an environment is a lone nihilist who seeks to get the attention denied to him by becoming a theatrical murdering sociopath.
The Kitchen has the same basic setting, but shows that women are more likely to choose an alternate path. Kathy in particular is the polar opposite of the Joker ethos, using her power to bring jobs to friends and family, seeking to protect and support local businesses. She shows that being marginalized by society – as women commonly are – can result in someone seeking to lift everyone up, even if the means chosen are sometimes violent.
If you haven’t seen The Kitchen, find it today and watch a movie whose morality doesn’t have to be endlessly explained and nuanced by the filmmakers but instead shows what women are capable of when they’re given the chance to decide their own fates.