Mark Rylance‘s skills as a “cutter” — methodically drawing patterns with disturbing precision, carving up fabric with startlingly long shears, and sewing the pieces together into a dapper suit — is perhaps the highlight of The Outfit, the stylish new crime thriller from Focus Features that marks the directorial debut of The Imitation Game scribe Graham Moore.
The movie takes place in the 1950s in Chicago, where you can immediately feel the tension emanating from the suspicious men in suits who roam in and out of the tailor’s shop run by Rylance’s character, Leonard. Clearly, these men are no angels and something foul is afoot, but if you scratch beneath that surface, you’ll soon come to realize that it is Leonard himself, with his quiet, unassuming but exacting demeanor, that you should perhaps be most afraid of.
The Outfit is set entirely in Leonard’s drab two-room shop, where he is looked after by his loyal assistant Mable (Zoey Deutch). But the shop is marauded by menacing men in fedoras, fancy suits (tailored by Leonard), and long winter coats. They are packing heat and trafficking in mysterious envelopes that are frequently dropped off in a black box set up in the back of the shop. The main such intruder is Richie (Dylan O’Brien), who it turns out is the son of a major Chicago crime boss. He’s often accompanied by his henchman, Francis (Johnny Flynn). Leonard and Mable, meanwhile, sit in stoic silence while the hoodlums come and go, doing their very best to keep their heads down and avert their eyes… or so it seems.
The biggest problem facing The Outfit is its central element — its story, which is predictable almost from the outset and flat to the point of near pointlessness by the time its fiery conclusion rolls around. Moore co-wrote the script with Jonathan McClain, and it’s clear that they were interested in creating a guessing game thriller without foreseeing that the limited nature of the proceedings — you can’t fit robust characters or subplots into a two-room tailor’s shop that plays out like a waiting room — would thereby limit the intensity of the story. The core tension in the film is that the meek Leonard may have to take drastic action if he wants to survive the mob war that has erupted in the middle of his quaint little shop.
Rylance delivers an extraordinary performance (more on that in a moment), but the film also boasts outstanding below-the-line crafts, starting with the purposefully sharp editing courtesy of Oscar winner William Goldenberg (Argo), who cuts between the front room and the back, and between the past, present and future as he weaves in and out of Leonard’s consciousness and dreams, his visions and his memories. Goldenberg’s task is challenging given that Moore, understandably, uses temporal and physical displacement to add some variety to the one-location setting of his film. The film is so expertly edited that it seems to almost dance from sequence to sequence, easing the viewer through sharp narrative transitions.
Meanwhile, the cinematography from veteran DP Dick Pope (Mr. Turner) is similarly strong, as he lights up the dark, drabby rooms in which most of the nocturnal action of this film takes place. Pope improbably brings to life what would have been a dreary setting in anyone else’s hands, and he also does a great job illuminating Rylance’s quiet, contemplative face, which masks many secrets.
Elsewhere, Alexandre Desplat’s quiet but tense score is well-suited for the tone of this film, Gemma Jackson creates a stunningly lavish and complex tailor’s shop interior set, and Zac Posen and Sophie O’Neill dress up the characters with the required degree of taste and expense. Not a single element of this stupendous technical production is left to chance, and not a one fails to impress either.
But despite its memorable tech values, The Outfit belongs entirely to its actors, and to Rylance in particular, though Flynn deserves kudos for a critical sequence in which his fearsome character goes toe to toe with the Oscar winner. But as various characters enter and exit Leonard’s shop, Rylance dances complex circles around each of them, camouflaging Leonard’s true nature. Rylance knocks yet another performance out of the park here, and he does that by modulating his voice while steadying his facial expressions so as not to give too much away. As a result, both the audience and the film’s other characters tend to underestimate Leonard, who as played by Rylance, appears to be old and weak. The truth is that the actor and his character are neither, and it is a delight to watch Rylance metaphorically carve up his foes with the precision of an expert Saville Row tailor.
The Outfit may not be the most compelling mob crime story this side of The Godfather, nor is it as entertaining as Guy Ritchie’s best films, from which it borrows a fair amount, but as Moore’s directorial debut, it is a pretty good movie nevertheless — one buoyed in large part by the deep bench of technical prowess that the director surrounded himself with, along with a leading man who delivers yet another knockout performance.
The Outfit is now playing in theaters nationwide.