Full disclosure: I still harbor a little bit of resentment toward Mark Rylance for the crime of beating Sylvester Stallone for Best Supporting Actor in a category which put Bridge of Spies against Creed, both excellent films. Alas, my fandom for Stallone has not blinded me to the fact that Rylance deserved the win, but I still growl at him a little because last I checked, he never played Rambo III.
Anywho, he’s a damn fine actor, and even though he has done a few solid roles since then, I’ve never really seen him as a leading man on screen. He always seems to be doing what he won his Oscar for: being a supporting actor. The Outfit aims to change that, placing him at the center of a twisty-turny plot that relies as much on script acrobatics as it does strong performances, the latter employed to pave over some of the less believable aspects of the former. It’s a tightrope walk, but one that is managed successfully by metrics of entertainment and unrelenting suspense.
Rylance plays Leonard, an English tailor living in Chicago in the 1940s. He came to America with a single set of shears and an eye toward making a living doing what he does best: constructing suits and other garments from scratch. When asked why he came to America, his answer is universal: “blue jeans.” It seems with the changing of the times, Europeans were no longer interested in tailored suits and classy slacks, so Leonard (or “English” as some customers call him) came to the states to carve out a niche for his business. Don’t call him a tailor, however. He’s a “cutter” and damn proud of it. He works methodically and meticulously, and anyone who wants the best suit in the world will have to do so on his schedule. In the battle of quick vs. correct, quality wins out every time.
His craft has made him a friend to the mob, who love both his work and his inclination not to ask questions about their dealings. He’s just like Jackie Chan in that he doesn’t want trouble. Unfortunately, he’s also just like Jackie Chan in that he’s about to find a lot of it. One night, one of the gangsters in his clientele shows up at the shop with a bullet in his gut. There’s a war between criminal factions on the streets, and everybody involved has reason to believe in moles and double crosses. Leonard’s shop is now the central hub for these ne’er-do-wells until everything shakes out or enough people end up dead to call it finished. Leonard is a meek man, but if he can use his quiet wits as skillfully as he wields his giant scissors, he may be able to survive the night.
It goes without saying that Rylance absolutely crushes this role. It taps into his skill as a supporting man by having him play a relatively meek presence in a room of very big personalities. I won’t risk spoiling the film’s many twists and turns, but I will say that his performance is one I look forward to seeing again on a second watch, just to see how much more there is to it. He’s not an inactive presence, but he does fall into the background by design, and does so with the scene-stealing skill of a master, while never upstaging his cohorts.
The crew of mobsters are a bunch of recognizable faces, all belonging to actors I’ve seen before, but whose names I had to look up in order to write this review. Dylan O’Brien plays Richie, the young wannabe whose dad runs the local crew. O’Brien is good, but he will always look like a child to me because I am a miserable old man. So even though he does wonderful work holding his own in a single location thriller, I tend towards seeing him as “the Maze Runner kid.” Note: he is good in the Maze Runner movies, which are also pretty good, all things considered. His Richie is dating Leonard’s assistant Mable, played here by Zoey Deutch, who you may remember for stealing the entirety of Zombieland 2 from her castmates. Mable is not a comedic performance, but Deutch employs a similar charm to play a savvy woman with an idea of womanhood a few decades ahead of its time. While she does, in some ways, feel visually mismatched to the period, this idiosyncrasy is tied into her performance.
Johnny Flynn, who plays the wildcard gangster Frances, gives the performance of the film. He’s professional, but unhinged. He plays his cards smartly, but isn’t above pulling the trigger when his back is against the wall. Between his intense eyes and his exhausted, closed-mouth cadence, he puts forth the perfect image of the exact type of piece of shit he’s tasked with playing.
The Outfit marks the feature directorial debut of Graham Moore, who won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay with The Imitation Game. He co-wrote this film as well, and exhibits as much aplomb behind the camera as he does at the keyboard. In writing this review, I struggled to remember if The Outfit was indeed a single location thriller. I believe it is, but this bodes well for Moore’s sense of space. The claustrophobia required to maximize tension in a single location is very present, but the feeling that there is a world outside the doors of the shop holds strong from beginning to end. There are a few flat looking moments here and there, but for the most part, every shot has a dynamism to it without being showy. The exceptional lighting helps to this regard, as does the sound design — when Leonard cuts into fabric, it’s an audiophile’s delight.
Technical indications aside, the metric by which one tends to judge a film like The Outfit is in entertainment value, and in this department it is a grand success. The tension never lets up for a second, bouncing from playful to unbearably suspenseful at a moment’s notice, and never letting up on narrative thrust. There are a few plot developments which, in the moment, threaten to pull the viewer out of suspension of disbelief, but the performances and pace make it so these issues never really stick. You’d have to be a real fink not to go along for the ride.
I have desperately wanted to use “fink” in a review for a while now and I feel okay about where it ultimately landed.
Directed by Graham Moore
Written by Graham Moore, Johnathan McClain
Starring Mark Rylance, Dylan O’Brien, Zoey Deutch, Johnny Flynn
Rated R, 105 minutes