Modest gangster thriller The Outfit is perfectly tailored to Oscar winner Mark Rylance

Rylance plays a 1950s suit maker mixed up with Chicago mobsters in this engaging drama

Modest gangster thriller The Outfit is perfectly tailored to Oscar winner Mark Rylance
Zoey Deutch and Mark Rylance in The Outfit Photo: Focus Features

In the opening moments of The Outfit, director Graham Moore’s modestly pitched and handsomely attired gangster saga, ex-Savile Row tailor Leonard Burling (Mark Rylance) declares that creating a proper men’s suit requires taking measure of a man’s character as well as his body. “Who would this man like to be and who is he underneath?” Leonard wonders. These are important questions to ask if he’s going to survive an increasingly bloody couple of days holed up in his tailor shop where long-buried secrets and deftly hidden weapons will become as indispensable as needles and thread. Filled with twists and reversals that, for the most part, are motivated by character not plot, The Outfit is a nifty little period thriller that provides a showcase role for the always-amazing Mark Rylance.

Leonard’s shop, discretely tucked in a Chicago street corner in 1956 and decorated in dark wood and leather, is where the entirety of the action unfolds. Beautifully apportioned by production designer Gemma Jackson (Game Of Thrones), it features a proper English sense of richness and simplicity consistent with Leonard’s humble aims. These aims include keeping his head down and his trap shut as he measures, cuts, and sews the best in gangster attire for Irish mobsters Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale); his heir-apparent son, Richie (Dylan O’Brien); and his conniving lieutenant, Francis (a terrific Johnny Flynn, looking like he stepped out of a Jimmy Cagney flick). They seem to be Leonard’s most frequent customers not only for the quality of the bespoke suits, but because they’ve been using the back room of his store to send secret messages. As various behatted, overcoat-wearing tough guys drop stuffed envelopes into a slotted wooden box, Leonard hunkers down and insists, “I only want to be left alone.” But before long, it’s clear that he has more on his mind than his deferential attitude would suggest.

The Oscar-winning Rylance (Bridge Of Spies) has a gift for conveying a sense of his internal gears grinding despite an exterior calm. His economy of movement amplifies the significance of each raised eyebrow and drag on a cigarette; his facial expressions convey multiple, sometimes contradictory, possibilities as to what Leonard may be thinking. A key moment comes when Richie busts into the shop with a nasty bullet hole in his side and Francis forces Leonard to sew up the wound (although not before the ever-proper Leonard gently hangs up Richie’s coat). As Leonard takes a good, long look at a prone Richie, his holstered gun peeking out from his bloodied jacket, Rylance has us wondering if Leonard is terrified or sensing an opportunity. As it turns out, it could be both. Richie was plugged by a member of the rival LaFontaine gang, dangerous numbers runners who could complicate Roy’s hopes of joining The Outfit, a real-life coast-to-coast criminal network run by, among others, Al Capone.

Moore (who won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Imitation Game) keeps the action appropriately scaled for a first-time director, shooting the film in sequence on a London soundstage. Although this sometimes makes The Outfit feel like a theater production committed to film, DP Dick Pope skillfully moves the camera and explores the space to avoid any staginess. The script (co-written by Moore and Johnathan McClain) works best when larger plot concerns step aside to allow for festering family conflicts to take center stage. Leonard’s shop manager is Mable (Zoey Deutch) who looks upon Leonard as a father figure although she’s resisting his plans to have her someday take over the store. A bit more dramatic, mostly because it involves the constant threat of gunfire, is Francis and Richie’s jockeying for Roy’s approval. Francis never misses an opportunity to congratulate himself for once taking six bullets to save Roy’s life. Richie fires back by reminding Francis that he’s not Roy’s son and is, in fact, not even Irish.

If these familial squabbles constitute the film’s most engaging moments, it’s not for lack of trying. While researching suit-making, Moore learned that the first bug the FBI ever planted was in a Chicago tailor shop in 1956. Hence the Boyle gang’s hunt for the rat who’s been selling out the family to the feds, part of an unwieldy pile-up of storylines that clutter the later innings, including a missing family member and an incriminating tape recording that might as well have been labelled “MacGuffin.”

At one point, Leonard informs us that creating a suit is a process that “requires no fewer than 228 steps,” a nugget of tailoring minutia that means one thing at the beginning of the film and something different at the end. In these moments, when our mind races to reconsider Leonard’s previous statements, decode his facial expressions, or decide if he’s telling the truth or bluffing, Moore’s blood-soaked chamber piece really clicks. It gets even better knowing that Rylance, a precise and endlessly fascinating actor who speaks volumes even in stillness, is the one saying the words. As long as Rylance is onscreen, The Outfit makes the cut.

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