The realm of mature, grownup films is slowly rebounding post-pandemic. And a lesser-likely candidate is leading the way, making the most of a continually evolving situation by thinking grand under smaller circumstances. Writer and first-time director Graham Moore returns to the spotlight after 2014’s The Imitation Game, not losing a step in making a close-knit tale out of the mob epidemic in his hometown of Chicago. The Outfit is just that film, not a wide-encompassing textbook, but merely a novella or playlet, capturing one mere thread (pun intended) of a far deadlier threat done by cinematic icons countless times before. If nothing else, its magnifying glass concept does away with most distractions, focusing tightly on a classical task and a precise empathic quandary.
It’s the Windy City, 1956. Crime runs the streets, to the point where it’s instantly classified as a public nuisance. But that fear doesn’t rattle tailor Leonard Burling (Mark Rylance), a WW1 vet whose clientele is as loyal as his way with scissors. He sees himself specifically as a cutter, a trimmer of fabric to guide his creative compass. Trained in the staunch playground of London’s Saville Row, he’s seen his share of tough implications, at work and on the battlefield.
Certainly, nothing like one fateful evening when brothers Richie (Dylan O’Brien) and Francis (Johnny Flynn) step in exercising their power while Richie tries to maintain composure with a bullet lodged in his gut. They both happen to be the sons of big city mafioso Roy (Simon Russell Beale), with whom Leonard has a handshake agreement to look the other way on using the shop as a neutral point. The rules fly out the window upon Francis explaining why Richie was shot, coupled with the revelation of a damning cassette tape stolen from the FBI. Thus begins the hunt for a rat among those in the shop; even the owner’s assistant Mabel (Zoey Deutch) is not exempt from the amateur investigation.
While the clue gathering doesn’t quite possess a Conan Doyle stamp, Moore, with co-writer Jonathan McClain, see no issue in enveloping a professional whirl on execution. Adhering to some minimal COVID filming limitations, the pair expand a unique location into a miniature universe of tension. Not unlike a suspenseful stage play, eager to rattle formula, while slowly crafting a character study for Rylance. Returning to his introspective element, by way of philosophical narration. I, for one, have missed this side of his epoch, having played quirky supporting roles in rapid succession to consistent results.
Following up immediately after his substantial inventor type in Don’t Look Up, Leonard is way more homespun, grounded, haunted by the efforts of his Londoner past, coping with the unseemly by trusting to focus on the minutiae. There are many avenues Moore is willing to carry Rylance to, on his back. And the two do not hesitate to tread through this exploration of psyches on alert. Diligence, the loose morals of criminal hiveminds, vindicative bloodshed. And in the case of Mabel, a pining for independence.
As Leonard’s assistant, her potential is stifled; as Richie’s on-off lover, she sees a hindered future. Deutch does not waste the moment, trapped in the middle of a sophisticated battle, but burning with her dramatic fuel. O’Brien is a worthy enough foe, playing along with the rhythms in yet another test of his acting maturity. Flynn and the experienced Beale moderately add doses of influence, though their performances may only be in use to accentuate that par-boiled overawe. It’s all a very befitting ensemble supporting a character-driven player proving his rapacity on either side of the acting coin.
While all of that is active, Moore clearly couldn’t stop there. The Outfit may be a performance-heavy piece, but the visual flourishes are just as splendid. We may not be talking Cruella-level costuming genius, but the art of the craft effortlessly cuts its way through, at the mercy of designers Sophie O’Neill (The King’s Man) and Zac Posen (Down a Dark Hall). Sound Editor Rachel Tate (No Time to Die) aims for the crafty, making every snip of Leonard’s shears echo like fancy hedge clippers with a unique history. And William Goldenberg’s (News of the World) rapid-fire decisions on cutting the picture to shove motives forward could never be under-stressed. The right editor can leave the viewer on their toes with every waiting move, and for this film to forebode scissors required just that motif to be a tad extra.
Staying centralized with a dangling sharp object looming figuratively over everyone’s heads? Smart, riddled with intensity. That plays so effectively to Moore’s advantage, you forget he’s holding the strings while Rylance is pulling them along. That’s what makes The Outfit such a small-scale treat, pleasing the intellect, as much as the eyes and ears. Lifting a very heavy veil of personal insecurity in Leonard’s perspective, the raw nerves make for hard taps, without necessarily going too deep. Had the plot been brave enough to probe a little further away from the surface, the arc would’ve reached greater fulfillment? As it stands, it’s quite the affair sidelining itself from a formulaic viewpoint, trying instead for a story careful to pay respect to a quiet craft. Without any real second-guessing, it all works, and it’s worth more than one look. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Outfit opens in theaters March 18; rated R for some bloody violence, and language throughout; 105 minutes.