Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Andrea Berloff was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Straight Outta Compton (2015). She also notably wrote Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. Both were famous true stories. Here, she’s adapting a comic book about mobsters in 1970’s New York City. What she crafts is a brutal and gritty look at that time period.
The title is a reference to Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood in Manhattan. It sits along the west side of the island between 34th and 59th streets. It used to be known historically as a neighborhood of poor and working-class Irish-American people. Irish immigrants came to this area during the Irish famine of the mid 1800’s. During Prohibition, the area became known for its bootlegging and the rise of gangs. A lot of this was covered in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002). After Prohibition, the area saw a rise of gang activity and violence, including the Irish mob, the Puerto Rican mob and the Italian mob. This was the case in the area until the 1980’s when gentrification started occurring and the cleaning up of the city began, pivoting off the construction of a convention center on 44th Street, now known as the Javits Center. This film is set in the middle of that pivotal moment when gangs converged and the city was still poor and grimy.
Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Bridesmaids) stars as Kathy Brennan, the wife of an Irish mobster and mother with two children. She knows that her husband is a criminal in the Irish mob. When her husband gets arrested, she needs money to survive. She goes to the head of the Irish mob or at least the guy who’s running things in Hell’s Kitchen. She asks him for money to help support her kids and not go broke, but she gets turned down. Along with two other mob wives, she decides to become actively working in the mob and in fact take over running the business from the local leader. Her tactic though isn’t to become as mean or tough as the men or the husbands who used to run the show.
Tiffany Haddish (Nobody’s Fool and Girls Trip) co-stars as Ruby O’Carroll, a friend to Kathy and fellow mob wife. Her husband was also arrested and at the same time as Kathy’s husband. She’s different in that she’s a black woman married into the Irish mob and her mother-in-law is highly racist. She suggests to Kathy that they take over for their husbands when they go to prison. Unlike Kathy though, her tactic is to become as mean or tough as the men, if not more so. She’s probably the most cynical and ruthless of the women involved here.
Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale and Mad Men) also co-stars as Claire Walsh, the third woman among the trio of women put into this situation. Her husband was the other guy arrested along with the other two. Unfortunately, she’s a battered wife. She’s been abused and is continuously abused. With the fortuitous introduction of a Vietnam veteran, she learns how to turn that abuse around on men. She in fact becomes a brutal killer herself and a lover of such merciless activity, and the film mostly revels in that mercilessness and brutality.
In order to take over and wield power, the three women have to pile up a lot of bodies. In return, people on their side also get taken out. It almost becomes a running gag the number of funerals they have to attend and that are in this narrative. The women’s ascension is an expression of feminism, even among the criminal world, and the ability to beat back sexism and misogyny in immoral scenarios.
Some have compared this to Widows (2018), which has somewhat of a similar premise. That film was a more nuanced look at racism and politics in the area in which it was set. The women in Widows didn’t want to be career criminals. They were forced into crime not of their own accord. They needed to do bad things in order to keep from getting killed. They were under threat of death, if they did nothing. The women here are under the threat of death not for inaction but rather for actual action. The women here are motivated for a lust for power and slight greed. It evolves from survival into something sinister. The women in Widows are motivated sheerly by survival. We can empathize with the women in Widows more than we can the women here, if at all.
Rated R for violence, language and some sexual content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.