Pulling together a pair of Oscar winners—actor Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) and writer Graham Moore (The Imitation Game)—The Outfit is a tightly wound, delightfully intriguing thriller that also happens to mark Moore’s feature directing debut (he co-wrote the screenplay with Johnathan McClain). Set in 1950s Chicago and taking place entirely in the tailor shop of Rylance’s Leonard, the film begins as a character study of this quiet, modest man who is also an expert tailor, having learned his craft on Savile Row in London before moving to Chicago (for reasons yet unknown). But as the film progresses and a handful of additional characters are introduced, we learn more about Leonard’s mysterious past and suddenly this largely quiet figure, who spends the film mostly listening to others, is revealed to be something much more than just a detail-oriented maker of fine suits.
Almost as soon as he arrived in Chicago and opened his store, mob boss Roy (the great British stage actor Simon Russell Beale) not only hired him to make his suits but the suits of those who work for him. That includes underlings Richie (Dylan O’Brien) and Francis (Johnny Flynn), who have also taken the liberty of setting up a dropbox in the back of Leonard’s store, used for mob business. The two men simply walk in, say their pleasant hellos to Leonard’s assistant/front-of-store person Mable (Zoey Deutch), and walk to back room where envelopes of protection payments are waiting in the drop box. Roy’s operation is growing in Chicago and these two are being considered for membership in the elite criminal organization known as The Outfit, which sometimes leaves messages for Roy in the box.
After we have a sense of how things normally work, things get decidedly abnormal. If I’m not mistaken, the entire film takes place in the course of a single day, and although the film is highly cinematic (the gifted Dick Pope is director of photography), it’s easy to imagine this as a stage production as well, with each new scene increasing the tension ever so slightly. A gang war breaks out in the city, pitting Roy’s gang against another group; Richie is shot, and Francis brings him to the tailor because he knows something about stitching things up (I probably don’t need to tell you that a particularly gruesome scene arrives shortly thereafter). And without giving too much away, we find out a great deal about everyone who enters Leonard’s life over the course of this chaotic day and night. We also find out there’s a rat in Roy’s organization, the FBI might be privy to certain conversations involving Roy, and no one is who they seem to be when we first meet them.
Every single performance in The Outfit is great in its own way. Deutch is especially versatile, going from bubbly and protective to sneaky and conniving. Rylance is devastating, and the more we learn about him, the more we feel for him and fear him. Even the way he corrects people when they call him a tailor (“I’m a cutter”) sent a chill down my spine every time. Flynn’s work here took me by surprise and amounts to something a great deal more than your typical “Hood #2” role. And Beale is pure, made-man joy, almost going over the edge but also respecting the tone of the film, as man so close to his goal of being a part of something bigger than him that he can taste it and will kill to make certain he doesn’t lose it.
The smaller scale of the film’s setting only heightens the claustrophobic qualities of the lived-in production design, and so much of the film feels dangerous, though not always for reason that can be put into words. The Outfit is the near-perfect combination of performance, writing, pacing, and atmosphere, keeping itself on a fairly even keel until it needs to let off a little steam. And even though the film tempts you with flashier characters throughout, never take your eyes off Leonard, if you know what’s good for you.
The film is now playing theatrically.
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