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The Outfit ★★★

Availability: Streaming on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Peacock, and multiple other sites; see JustWatch here.


A Good Fit


As the latest entry in the field of mystery/thrillers, “The Outfit” defies most of that genre’s characteristics: there’s no sleuth to solve the mystery (no Colombo, no Sherlock Holmes); there’s a murder, but no doubt about who did it (no wondering if was Colonel Mustard in the Library with a candlestick); the characters talk, rather than shoot themselves out of jam after jam; and the action—such as it is—is contained (in three rooms in a bespoke “tailor” shop, in one of which is a dead body in a trunk, echoing Hitchcock’s “The Rope” [1948]).


Above, two junior hitmen Francis (Johnny Flynn), left, and Richie (Dylan O'Brien), right,

involve the cutter, Leonard (Mark Rylance), center, in their deadly game.


The plot seems straightforward. Chicago 1956. A reserved, shy, meticulous cutter (“Don’t call me a tailor; they just hem trousers”) makes suits for the mob. On one bitterly cold night, two of his clients rush into the shop to avoid the police, involving the English-born artisan in their dangerous world. Award-winning film and stage actor Mark Rylance is perfect as Leonard, or “English,” as his mob clients call him. Those two junior hitmen, Richie (Dylan O'Brien), the hot-headed son of the crime boss, and Francis (Johnny Flynn), Richie’s aggressive partner, proceed to exploit Leonard’s reserve and apparent weakness.

Mark Rylance, right, is perfect

as Leonard, or "English,"

as his mob clients call him.




“English” and his chippy secretary Mable (Zoey Deutch) are presented as good, capable people who want only to live their lives: in the case of English, to make suits and keep his mouth shut; for Mable, to get out of Chicago and go, as she says, anywhere, anywhere being Paris. Mable, a surrogate daughter for Leonard (their limited relationship is touching), and Leonard, admirable in his fondness for his craft, are pawns, unwittingly caught up in the underworld. As such, they have our sympathy; we want to see them survive and even win at whatever game is being played.


Above, Leonard (Rylance) and Mable (Zoey Deutch) have a touching

though limited, surrogate father-daughter relationship.


As Richie and Francis argue over a tape made by the FBI through a bug planted somewhere, the question the mystery needs to have answered becomes clear: not who killed the dead guy, but who is the rat? As in all good mysteries, there are multiple candidates. Could it be English? Or Mable? Or Francis? Or Richie? When Leonard starts telling conflicting stories, pitting Francis and Richie against each other, his reliability as a narrator is put in question; but what other narrator can be trusted?

 

The metaphor of the cutter frames the plot.

 

The metaphor of the cutter frames the plot, beginning with the title of the film: “The Outfit” is both the overarching mob family (descended from Al Capone, it’s said) and the suit that Leonard, in a voiceover that opens the film, painstakingly describes how to make. For Leonard, whose “tools” are his shears (“the only thing I brought with me”), making a suit is all about planning and precision. It’s about patterns and forms (“the only friends we have”), expectations and results that can be controlled and predicted. That seems to be the life Leonard proudly and contentedly inhabits.


Suspense builds when the crime boss (Simon Russell Beale) shows up. English and the boss present and discuss their “tools”—English his shears, the boss his gun—reinforcing the impression that Leonard is a quiet man with a trade, the boss a violent man with an organization of thugs. It’s not quite that simple.





Blood is spilled, here by Richie (Dylan O'Brien), but the strength of the film is in talking, not action.





Leonard’s motivations are neither clear nor strong, and that may be a weakness in Moore’s otherwise engaging drama. The English cutter has more than one backstory—his history emerges late in the film, and it may suggest some guilt. But motivation may not be important, because it’s the process of the craft that entrances Leonard, and us, while enhancing his aura of innocence.

 

One can start over, but the past will have its way.

 

In the end, as Leonard is still waxing eloquent on how to make the suit, he explains that perfection can never be obtained, that something always goes wrong. Here, too, the script offers a metaphor. How does a careful planner like Leonard react when life in all its messiness gets in the way? The lesson may be simply that, even with all that care and planning, one cannot escape who one is. One can start over, but the past will have its way.


First-time director Moore’s adherence to this metaphor (even when it seems overly clever, as in the film’s title) is part of the pleasure of his writing. At 35, he won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for 2014’s “The Imitation Game,” based on the book about British mathematician Alan Turing. The dark palette of cinematographer Dick Pope captures the claustrophobic interiority of the setting and gives the film its period look.


This unusual murder mystery has a few gunshots (nobody shoots first; they talk first, and keep talking), knifings, blood on the floor, and sewing—of human flesh. Still, it’s the mental antics that dominate. The result, mostly in the hands—or words—of a superb Rylance, is a riveting and suspenseful, tension-filled film.


 

Date: 2022

Director: Graham Moore

Starring: Mark Rylance, Zoey Deutch, Dylan O'Brien, Johnny Flynn, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Simon Russell Beale

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: United Kingdom and United States

Languages: English and French (the latter not subtitled)

Other Awards: None to date


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