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In ‘The Kitchen,’ the Only Good Man Is a Dead One

Twenty-eight years after ‘Thelma & Louise,’ why do we still have a hang-up about “nice” female movie characters killing bad guys?

Thelma & Louise is a landmark film, although its legacy and meaning are still debated 28 years after its release. Is it a feminist film? Is it not? (When the movie opened in the summer of 1991, Time writer Margaret Carlson argued, “For all the talk that Thelma & Louise is the first major female buddy movie, it is more like a male buddy movie with two women plunked down in the starring roles. … [R]ather than finding their way with their female natures intact or even being able to reach out to the one decent man who could help them, they become like any other shoot-first-and-talk-later action heroes.”) But what remains indisputable is that it features one of the most shocking film deaths I’ve ever seen. 

You probably remember it: A drunken asshole named Harlan (Timothy Carhart) gets a little too friendly with Thelma (Geena Davis) and tries to rape her, his plan averted by Louise (Susan Sarandon) sticking a gun in his neck. Defeated and emasculated, Harlan seethes at Louise: “Bitch, I should have gone ahead and fucked her.” Louise, gun still in hand, asks him to repeat that. “I said suck my cock,” Harlan responds. She shoots him dead.

Three decades later, we’re still wrestling with the implications of that scene and Thelma & Louise itself. Was it wrong for Louise to shoot the guy? Legally, sure, it was a bad act, but on some deeper philosophical level, could you say that she was justified? Harlan is a pig. Doesn’t he ultimately deserve what he has coming to him? And if it was so “wrong,” why did it feel so right?

The Kitchen is nowhere near as good as Thelma & Louise it’s actually not very good at all — but it does show how far Hollywood has (or hasn’t) come in 28 years. Based on a DC graphic novel, this late-1970s crime drama tells the story of three mob wives — Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) — who have to stand up for themselves after their husbands are sent to prison. Soon — and without the local bosses’ blessing — they’re operating their own protection rackets, enjoying the freedom and power that come with controlling one’s own destiny. But that freedom and power have a cost, eventually pitting these women against the bosses, who are all men and don’t want housewives telling them what’s what. To maintain their independence, Kathy, Ruby and Claire will have to get dirty. The Kitchen is about women learning that, to get ahead, they sometimes have to kill the guys holding them back.

When I attended the premiere for The Kitchen, it was filled with people who had worked on the movie, an that atmosphere tends to inspire the audience to overly cheer, like they’re proud parents watching their kid ace their piano recital. That means taking any crowd reaction with a grain of salt, but I did notice a sizable amount of women responding approvingly to the growing violence meted out by Kathy, Ruby and Claire as they try to maintain their authority over Hell’s Kitchen. I’ll be careful of spoilers since the movie opens today, but let’s just say that not all the men in these women’s lives make it out alive. Some are more “deserving” of dying than others — spousal abusers, muggers, mobsters and disloyal husbands all get theirs — but no matter the severity of their crime, The Kitchen positions all these killings as a principled reaction to the discrimination and harassment women constantly endure. As far as the film is concerned, these wives are on the side of the angels — it’s time to fight fire with fire. 

When Thelma & Louise came out, some bemoaned the characters’ use of violence as a way of settling old gender scores. (Later in the movie, the two friends blow up a tanker truck driven by a sexist.) But Roger Ebert pushed back against that criticism: 

“The feminist revolution … hasn’t benefitted from the kind of release that a good popular movie can provide, when society is taken by the throat and shaken. It is not enough for a female character to negotiate a moral victory, as she usually does in movies with a feminist angle. Women audiences are hungry for female characters who get away with something, like the guys always seem to. When that gasoline tanker goes up in flames, it’s vengeance, but it’s also outlaw behavior that women characters rarely get away with in the movies.

Women don’t want to see men killed meaninglessly, as so many men seem to enjoy seeing random violence in ‘their’ movies, but they do want to see revenge, when it’s deserved.”

I completely agree with that point — the violence in Thelma & Louise felt liberating — and yet I found myself taken aback by the killing in The Kitchen. Partly, that’s because writer-director Andrea Berloff increasingly bungles the characters and plotting. But one thing Berloff is clear about is her relish in these wives’ violent retribution. It’s not that Kathy, Ruby and Claire are unfeeling killing machines. If anything, their violence is emotional and cathartic. Claire, initially the meekest of the three, finds a strange sense of self-confidence once she becomes more adept at defending herself with lethal force. (When her hitman boyfriend, played by Domhnall Gleeson, shows her the best way to dismember a dead body, she discovers she has a flair for the grisly task.) Kathy is a tough-talker who finds out that tough talk isn’t always sufficient to get the point across, while Ruby (just about the only black woman in this world of white Irish male mobsters) develops a taste for murder, which feels like an outward manifestation of the bigotry she’s internalized all her life as an outsider. 

The movie’s dark joke is that, in a realm of killers and hustlers, these three characters become their best selves by beating the patriarchy at its own game.

And yet, I confess I felt slightly disappointed that this was the direction The Kitchen went. The title, of course, is a sly reference to the outdated societal belief that the kitchen is “the woman’s place,” which doubles as a nickname for Hell’s Kitchen, where all the bloody action occurs. But, oddly, I kept wanting Kathy, Ruby and Claire to triumph by simply being smarter than their male cohorts. I didn’t want them to be just like these men — who are killers and thugs — but, somehow, better. Basically, I wanted them to be… more ladylike.

My response was a surprise, and also embarrassing. I rooted for these mob wives, but I was displaying a form of patronizing sexism by expecting more out of them than what we normally see from men in gangster pictures. When Michael Corleone or Tony Soprano has someone killed, it’s “dramatic” and “fascinatingly amoral” — men in mob fiction, apparently, are automatically compelling because they’re grappling with their demons. But as my reaction to The Kitchen suggests, women are somehow expected to be nobler — they’re depended on to be beacons of goodness and civility who possess restorative powers. And that assumption cuts across genres: In comic-book movies, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman are among the most pure and honorable of superheroes. Boys will be boys, but the women are held to a higher standard — even in a gangster picture. 

In recent years, there have been a series of gender-swap films, from Ghostbusters to Ocean’s 8, and the same complaints were leveled against those movies as Thelma & Louise faced back in the day — essentially, that they’re just repurposed stories where the female characters take the place of men. The Kitchen slides into that category simply because of the novelty of a mob movie starring women, and it has similar limitations. But despite its considerable flaws, The Kitchen does possess the same angry kick that Thelma & Louise exhibited 28 year ago. If you cross Kathy, Ruby and Claire, don’t expect them to act ladylike. They know the cutthroat world they’re operating in — if you’re a bad man, you’re getting eliminated. Maybe some of the fellas “deserve” it less than others. But what films like The Kitchen and Thelma & Louise argue is that, deep down, all us men sorta do. In some form or another, we’re all part of the problem.

Here are three other takeaways from The Kitchen

#1. Hollywood can’t get enough of “The Chain.”

In the late 1970s when Fleetwood Mac put out their multiplatinum classic Rumours, the album launched several Top 10 singles that have gone on to become ubiquitous in the culture, including “Dreams” and “Go Your Own Way.” (You may remember that a certain Democratic presidential candidate used “Don’t Stop” as his very successful campaign song.) But “The Chain” was never a hit — in fact, it wasn’t even released as a single at the time. And yet, it might be the signature cut off Rumours these days. It remains the kickoff song for the band’s concerts, and it’s been featured rather prominently in several recent films, including The Kitchen.

The song showed up in two 2017 movies. The second of those two instances was in I, Tonya, but it was far more crucial to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, where director James Gunn used the Fleetwood Mac cut for two dramatic moments, including Star-Lord’s big showdown with his long-lost father near the end. 

While there’s no hard-and-fast rule about this, generally speaking big movies don’t want to recycle the same songs — otherwise, when audiences hear a particular iconic tune in your new film, they may just associate it with an older, perhaps better film that also used it. Undeterred, The Kitchen also relies on “The Chain” for some emotional heavy-lifting. In fact, there’s even a new cover, performed by the female country supergroup the Highwomen, that plays over the closing credits.

So why is everybody loving “The Chain” these days? I think it’s because of the song’s slow-burn dynamics — it has a dramatic build that feels like a big standoff is about ready to go down. “The Chain” bottles up its tension for a long time before, finally, it gets released near the end in explosive (albeit soft-rock) fashion. Plus, the defiance in the vocals is relatively stirring — it creates an “us against them” vibe that puts us on the side of a film’s main characters.

I’ve always really loved “The Chain,” so it’s been cool to hear it pop up in movies. But I’ve sorta had my fill, and I hope music supervisors give it a rest for a while. Honestly, when I heard “The Chain” in The Kitchen, I just thought of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

#2. Please become a member of my Bill Camp Fan Club.

Certain stars you’ll see in anything they do. But it takes a true movie obsessive to geek out about the presence of a particular character actor in a film or TV show. It’s not always logical, but certain supporting players just make me happy simply by showing up in something, even if it’s only for a scene or two.

This is my way of saying that I’m probably the only human being who looked at the cast list for The Kitchen and said, “Oh nice, Bill Camp!”

You may not recognize the name, but you probably recognize his face — although you may not know where you know it from. Such is the power and odd fate of great character actors. They’re meant to be somewhat anonymous. A director can plug them into certain roles — cop, next-door neighbor, mob boss — and they’ll radiate authority and gravitas without pulling focus from the big stars. They’re like silent assassins.

Camp’s been working since 1990, seguing back and forth from film to television to theater. He’s collaborated with Steven Spielberg, Paul Greengrass, Jeff Nichols, Nicole Holofcener, Todd Haynes, Yorgos Lanthimos and Steve McQueen. He’s rarely the main character, but he often gives his scenes an extra jolt. Which is why it was so great to see him used so prominently in HBO’s The Night Of, where he plays the detective who believes Riz Ahmed’s Naz committed the murder. This scene illustrates how no-nonsense terrific Camp is:

In a 2016 profile in The Village Voice, Camp talked about his ability to blend in and perform a variety of roles. “I sort of see that as my job. It just seems natural,” he said. “I’m just so lucky that these great directors have said, ‘Okay, Bill can play this little guy in this movie.’”

Ebert had what he called the “Stanton-Walsh Rule” — “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad” — and I guess Camp works the same way for me. Camp has been in bad movies, like Vice, but their badness is never his fault. In The Kitchen, he plays an Italian mobster who seeks an audience with Kathy, Ruby and Claire as they rise to power. All Camp needs to be is slightly malevolent while seeming outwardly friendly. He does this rather well. The movie’s a misfire, but anytime his character showed up, I was about 25 percent happier. That’s what good character actors provide a film. 

#3. Here’s the Elisabeth Moss movie you need to see.

Moss has earned significant acclaim thanks to Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, but her film career hasn’t been quite as prominent. That’s not to say she hasn’t done good work on the big screen — she’s excellent in the low-budget sci-fi/romantic drama The One I Love and in Jordan Peele’s Us — but she hasn’t had her Peggy Olson/June Osborne moment yet. The Kitchen probably won’t be it, either, but I’d recommend a little-seen but terrific indie drama from earlier this year that shows her taking massive risks. It’s some of the best work of her career.

Her Smell will not be for everyone. Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, with whom she previously made Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, it’s the story of a faded 1990s rock star, Becky Something, who led the acclaimed riot grrrl band Something She. But their heyday is long over, and now her bandmates and associates are stuck dealing with a verbally abusive addict who makes their lives miserable. Her Smell is about how Becky hits bottom and then desperately tries to pick herself back up.

That description might make the movie sound like an inspirational, conquer-your-demons story. Perhaps you’re imagining that Becky channels her pain into liberating rock ‘n’ roll that puts Something She back on the map. Not exactly, but Moss and Perry deftly navigate this prickly character’s road to a kind of redemption. But be warned: Moss is volcanic, playing Becky as utterly insufferable. (I can’t think of a rock biopic where the main character was this much of a nightmare, even at their druggiest.) And yet, there’s also incredible humanity within the performance, suggesting that a real person is in there, if only she can get out of her own way.

Her Smell asks a lot of the viewer. But if you stick with it, the movie is enormously moving. What helps immensely is Moss, who plays a wild child who’s gotten too old to be fascinating anymore for her outbursts. It’s a powerful coming-of-age story about an artist who finally decides to grow up.