Directed by Graham Moore
Written by Jonathan McClain and Graham Moore
"This is not an art, it's a craft," says the hero and narrator of The Outfit, in reference to his profession as a suit cutter (and not, as he points out at least twice and possibly eight times over the course of his story, a tailor, a distinction that makes so little difference outside of, perhaps, Savile Row itself, that you'll likely to have never heard of it before, and the job doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry). Those words were placed there by his author, co-writer Graham Moore, The Outfit being his directorial debut after a career in novels and screenwriting, and the implication is pretty unmissable that this is, in a sense, his own statement of purpose as regards his film. "Art" and "craft" are usually much the same thing to me as a formalist; a work's artistic merit is at least bound up in its craft, if not entirely decided by it. But it's a highly agreeable approach, and if The Outfit accordingly doesn't have much of a point beyond its focus on the mechanics of an interesting story and telling that story to the best of its makers' abilities, we still find it flourished with noticeable personality, and awfully welcome in its low-key charms. If it's about something, it's more about what it isn't; our hero also complains, twice, about his pursuit of craft being crowded out by the new mass-produced populist fads, in his case the unwelcome arrival of blue jeans. But if a movie must be about at least one thing, it is best that it be about itself.
Moore chose perhaps the genre most welcoming to the craftsman's approach, and The Outfit is, to the exclusion of almost anything else, a tight little crime thriller set in the early 1950s (and thus, in addition to being a thriller, kind of automatically a "neo-noir"); it is, in fact, an entirely single-location film, almost never even leaving the interior of a classy suitmaker's shop and in the rare case we do, it's only for rare establishing shots of what it looks like from the outdoors (an even fewer number of which have people in them). So that's an application of craft already, locking the film down into an environment that's deceptively (even ironically) comfortable, cozy, and soothing; besides a color palette almost exclusively consisting of earthtones and grays in the 50s costuming and wood decor—any variation in the costumes means something, like the one guy who wears a blue suit is marked out as the first to die—Alexandre Desplat's score can get curiously meandering, its most memorable moments marked by woodwind solos. Of course, as we know going in, that environment is going to be the site of several gun standoffs and the making of more than one corpse. And who better to embody the contradiction between innocuous setting and incipient violence than Mark Rylance, presently Hollywood's favorite harmless old man?
So: Leonard Burling (Rylance), a soft-spoken cutter formerly of London and frequently referred to, with a hint of derogation, as "English," is the proprietor of a shop in the Irish part of Chicago. In addition to his duties as a clothier, he offers a special service to select clientele, allowing his backroom to serve as a message drop for the Irish gang led by Roy Boyle (Simon Russel Beale), an association going back to the day that Boyle became his very first customer. His most frequent contact with the gang, however, is only Boyle's running dogs, his son and heir apparent, Richie (Dylan O'Brien), and his best operator, Francis (Johnny Flynn), who is nevertheless relegated to serving as his boss's kid's handler and valet. We get the impression that Richie is around even more than business dictates, since he's dating Leonard's assistant, Mable (Zoey Deutch), a relationship which Leonard only can't openly disapprove of. Working late one night, Leonard is on hand when Richie and Francis abscond into his shop, fleeing cops and criminal adversaries alike in the aftermath of a shooting, with Richie nursing a nasty wound in his stomach. Their enemies, it seems, are after a particular maguffin—a tape from a wiretap that details the Boyle gang's plans, but also reveals the identity of the traitor in their midst—and with the gangsters unable to trust even their own compatriots (nobody's had an opportunity to hear the tape yet), it's only a matter of time before they turn their guns towards each other.
What this leaves out is Rylance's narration, which opens the film and will never be too far away from it, and which has Leonard holding forth upon the subject of making a suit in such a way that it is unmistakably a metaphor for the well-crafted master plan he has put into motion to do... something, so at least that's less than clear at first. But it does mean that from the very first moments we're aware that while Leonard appears to have fallen ass-backwards into a crime thriller, he's playing a game of his own making, and that impression only becomes clearer as he very obviously—more obviously to us, I think, though one criticism one could make of this screenplay is that its gangsters are easily bamboozled—manipulates his clients into increasingly dangerous states of paranoia and into situations where that paranoia will reward him more than it is ever likely to reward them. (The other thing this leaves out is "the Outfit," which, in addition to giving the film it's somewhat dumb pun title, is also the successor organization to Capone's continent-spanning crime network. Happily, this far-flung conspiracy has little impact on the story and could have been left out altogether; there's never much sense that The Outfit is intended to belong to some wider universe of crime fiction, and really the only function it serves is just to help kick off the plot and explain why an FBI wiretap made its way back to a local Chicagoland gang looking to expand its ambit.)
So the experience of watching The Outfit is less akin to stumbling through a mystery than it is to watching pieces fall into place—some, even so, more unexpectedly than others—and, more importantly, of riding alongside Rylance as Leonard courts mortal peril while keeping himself alive by using his enemies' own weight against them. The film is uniformly well-acted otherwise: besides Rylance, the standout is Deutch, who manages a modestly great 2022 updating of a 50s crime film dame, using anachronistic attitude to anchor her character as a subtle threat in her own right rather than just blow up the movie, and developing a rapport with Rylance that's sweet in its spikiness; meanwhile, O'Brien, Flynn, Beale, and Nikki Amuka-Bird (as a latecomer from a rival family) are doing fine yeoman work with gangsters who have their own personalities and quirks, particularly Flynn. But it comes down principally to Rylance, and the counterpoise of his retiring obsequiousness with the barely-disguised glee with which he destroys his associates. (Hell, in one key early scene, naked glee.) It's handy for getting us into his corner, as the former quality has rendered Leonard warm and likeable but also a little disgustingly pathetic; it's a legitimate joy to watch him use his very subservience as a weapon, turning his foes' macho posturing and overconfidence into glaring liabilities, so that whatever his endgame turns out to be, the very process of his subaltern revenge is already a worthwhile thing in and of itself.
Moore and co-writer Jonathan McClain keep this moving, elaborating upon their initial set-up in all kinds of ways as twists pile atop of twists, and while there's the ever-present danger of referring to a single-location thriller as "like a play," that would be unfair unless you meant it as a compliment, as this thriller's limited number of degrees of freedom, and its very smallness, are, after all, the prime reasons it's appealing. But it is, it turns out, surprisingly cinematic in the execution. (Or maybe not so surprisingly: single-location films have always obliged themselves more than any other mode to tack toward style, whether it's relatively quiet as it is here, or bombastic like in, say, Rope.)
Moore's success as a screenwriter—he won an Academy Award for The Imitation Game, which I wouldn't call especially good art or craft, but here we are—means that he was able to get a few veterans for his directorial debut; besides Desplat, he also snagged cinematographer Dick Pope. (The latter is a source of pleasure and frustration, unfortunately: the warm lighting and laquered color timing are both really great, but Pope, like a number of cinematographers these days, is playing around with some real dumbshit ideas about shallow focus, most egregiously in some medium shots where one character will be completely out-of-focus because, it seems, he's a couple of feet closer to the camera. I can possibly pick up some intent to these choices, but it's too unstressed to really feel like anything less than a mistake, yet too in-your-face to just ignore.) It is, in any case, much more fundamentally a work of, well, cutting, Moore and editor William Goldenberg evincing strong twin senses of tension and suspense; and while nothing ever gets showier than a bravura sequence where they cross-cut between chronologically-adjoining scenes like this is easy (and they do it terrifically enough you wonder why it's not a more salient aspect of their film's construction), The Outfit benefits in outsized ways from the clockwork rhythms of a film where every new shot could, and often does, bring in a whole new threat if not a whole new reality, but always seems to be counting down to a preordained and fatalistic conclusion.
Ultimately, there's only one actual problem in the movie, which is that it ends one too many times—the denouement is, I have to say, kind of terrible, and suggests Moore actually didn't know what the heart of his movie was—and it's rather irritating in the ways it imposes a sobby background on a character more vicariously enjoyable as a righteous sociopath. I would've been fully prepared to give it even higher marks if, as I suspected, that character was lying through his teeth about certain elements of his history; and the last twist, which I don't like but don't necessarily despise, is splendidly performed but painfully overexplained, so that if Moore had at least been confident in his visual signifiers, I still could have credited it a little more. But that happens sometimes in overly-mechanical thrillers—there's a temptation to make them human and since that's not the point of the exercise, it can occur in eye-rolling Screenwriting 101 ways—so one oughtn't dismiss it out of hand even if it zigs or zags when you'd have strongly preferred it to ride a straight rail. Better then, to celebrate the kind of film that doesn't get made that much anymore, if it ever did (as a sidenote, that Marvel movie poster feels viscerally incorrect, doesn't it?). I love the journey of it, anyway: a thriller driven by strong performances and a sense of constant anxious desperation, about as small-scaled as a movie could possibly get, and precious in how much it winds up able to accomplish anyway within those limitations.