Mark Rylance is tailor made to play the lead role in “The Outfit,” a new gangster film set entirely inside a bespoke suit maker’s shop. I own up to the stupid joke in the first sentence of this review, but it is true. Rylance astounds as the “cutter”—tailors are best at sewing on buttons and not much else he says—at the center of the action in this twisty-turny chamber piece.
Set in the mid-1950s, the movie revolves around Leonard Burling (Rylance), a former Savile Row cutter who lovingly details the process of making a suit from scratch in the film’s opening voiceover. “This isn’t art,” he says proudly, “it’s a craft.”
Working the front desk is his assistant Mabel Sean (Zoey Deutch), a young woman who has her sights set on a horizon far beyond the tailor shop.
Discreet and meticulous, Burling makes beautiful clothes for his Chicago clients, including members of the Boyle Gang, the heavies who run the neighborhood. “If we only allowed angels in here,” he says, “we’d have no customers.” His services to the gangsters extend beyond making them look good. His store also doubles as a drop spot for the Boyles, a safe place for Richie (Dylan O’Brien), son of the Boyle Gang boss, and the ambitious mobster Francis (Johnny Flynn), to pass messages back and forth.
Burling stays out of the way, rarely makes eye contact with the tough guys and is unfailingly polite. “I don’t judge,” he tells Richie. “I just don’t want to be involved in whatever it is you do.”
Unfortunately, when it becomes clear there’s a rat in the Boyle Gang who may, or may not, be making surreptitious tapes of their criminal activities for the FBI, Burling is drawn into their nasty business.
What unfolds from this point is a whip-lash inducing game of twister as the character’s motivations tie the story in knots. Manipulation, deceit, double dealings and death are the name of the game in this literate, adult thriller. Although “The Outfit” was written for the screen by director Graham Moore, who took home an Oscar for writing “The Imitation Game,” it feels like a stage play. From the minimal sets—the whole thing takes place in two rooms—to the intimate performances and the intricate, wordy script, it is unabashedly and wonderfully theatrical.
An understated performance from Rylance sets the tone for the ensemble cast. His enigmatic character is a sounding board for everyone from the gangsters who cause all the trouble to Mabel, the neighborhood woman who just wants to see the world. The characters fit together like puzzle pieces to really bring this story alive.
“The Outfit” is a small film that is unafraid to rely on the characters and the words and not elaborate set pieces to make an impact. Writer, director Moore has made a film that, unlike how Burling feels about his life’s work, emphasizes both craft and art.