The Outfit is an odd little crime drama that gets raised up a notch by the performance of Mark Rylance, an actor who specializes in odd little characters.
Sir Mark Rylance, born in the U.K. but raised and educated in the U.S., unexpectedly vaulted from a successful career on British stages to an Academy Award-winning film role as a Soviet espionage agent in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015). The soft-spoken, mild-mannered man with hidden reserves of resourcefulness and bravery has been his forte onscreen ever since, in Dunkirk, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and last year’s Don’t Look Up. He plays the type of character who can outthink you and make you glad for the experience. In The Outift, the man in question is the sort that John le Carré describes as a watcher, one who carefully observes. Underestimate a Rylance character at your own risk.
The setting of The Outfit is a snug tailor shop on a snowy Chicago street in 1956, owned and operated by Leonard Burling (Rylance). Inside the old-fashioned, wood-paneled haberdashery, the English immigrant meticulously fashions bespoke men’s clothing with an air of unobtrusive pride. “I’m a cutter, not a tailor,” declares the Savile Row veteran as he conducts a lesson in fine suit-making. Anyone can be called a tailor; a cutter is an expert shaper of clothing to fit an individual customer. He’s almost an artist, yet not exactly. In Leonard’s words, “This isn’t art, it’s a craft.”
Leonard is not alone in his workshop. Up front sits Mable (Zoey Deutch), a young woman from the neighborhood who yearns for a change of scenery. As it happens in writer Jonathan McClain and director Graham Moore’s scenario, Mable is dating Richie Boyle (Dylan O’Brien), a hoodlum who makes a habit of dropping by the shop. Reason: in addition to suit-making, Leonard’s place of business functions as a mail drop for gangsters. How and why Leonard became involved with the mob is a question the movie glosses over in its hurry to move the plot along.
As we plod forward, such matters come into focus, a stitch at a time. Richie’s father, Roy (Simon Russell Beale, a bit miscast), is a crime boss at war with rivals across town. There’s some interest in a cassette tape of covert bug evidence, a missing briefcase full of cash, an up-and-coming hood named Francis (strikingly played by Johnny Flynn), yet another rival crew run by a French-speaking Black woman called Violet LaFontaine (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and, oh yes, a rat selling info to the FBI. All this as Leonard calmly goes about his business.
The idea of using a tailor as the fulcrum of a tense, suspenseful drama reminds us of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, as well as Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien – same detached mannerisms and fussy attention to detail, grafted onto a complex back story. Leonard’s situation bears an even stronger resemblance to another Chicago gangster tale, David Mamet’s Things Change, with Don Ameche as a humble shoeshine man promoted to godfather status by comic accident. If only director Moore (The Imitation Game) had been able to capture Mamet’s steely, understated atmosphere of menace.
Again and again, we fall back on Rylance’s skill. He draws his portrait of a seemingly servile, weak man with the hand of a practiced miniaturist – as in the scene in which Leonard explains how James Dean and his blue jeans single handedly ruined the fine clothing trade in post-World-War-II Britain. That acting job is almost enough to lift The Outfit out of its dead spots. Almost.
The movie’s double-entendre title refers to the longtime nickname of the Chicago organized crime syndicate. But there’s another The Outfit, director John Flynn’s lean, nasty 1973 actioner, with Robert Duvall and Joe Don Baker battling Robert Ryan, Timothy Carey, Richard Jaeckel and Marie Windsor for control of various rackets. Rylance and his 2022 filmmakers have a lot to aspire to.