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OPINION | REVIEW: ‘The Outfit’ is a made-to-measure drama

Bespoke theater by Keith Garlington Special to the Democrat -Gazette | March 18, 2022 at 6:41 a.m.
Born to cut: Leonard Burling (Mark Rylance) trained as a tailor on London’s Savile Row; but after World War II he emigrated to Chicago, where he gets mixed up with some unsavory gangsters in Graham Moore’s “The Outfit.”

Everybody has a history. Those words ring true throughout "The Outfit," the new crime drama from author and screenwriter Graham Moore. This marks the directorial debut for Moore who won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 2014's "The Imitation Game." Much like other covid-19 era movies, his film brings together a relatively small cast and lets the drama play out in a single location. Here it's a modest tailor's shop in Gangland Chicago, circa 1956.

"The Outfit" brandishes a double-edged title with the most obvious reference being to a suit of clothes. But it's also a reference to a mob network from the Al Capone era, connecting gangs from around the country. It's a coveted yet mysterious fraternity that many crime families aspire to be a part of. Moore uses the title's dual meanings in a number of entertaining ways as his gangster chamber piece moves from slight simmer to a violent boil.

Who better to play a mild-mannered and self-effacing English tailor than the gentle and affable Mark Rylance? His character, Leonard Burling, learned his craft on central London's famed Savile Row. But after a devastating personal tragedy he came to the States with nothing but his beloved sheers. Now he quietly runs his shop, making suits for gentlemen and unsavory types alike. "If we only allowed angels to be customers, soon we'd have no customers at all," he rationalizes to his receptionist, Mable (Zoey Deutch), a dreamer with hopes of leaving Chicago behind and traveling the world.

But outside a neighborhood gang war is steadily intensifying. Throughout the day a number of serious-looking men in well-tailored suits and fedoras walk into Leonard's shop. Without uttering a word they head to the back room, drop small packages into a lockbox mounted on the wall, and are quickly on their way. At the end of the day, Richie Boyle (Dylan O'Brien), the hot-headed son of local mob boss Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale), enters the shop with his right-hand heavy Francis (Johnny Flynn) to collect the packages. Meanwhile the unassuming Leonard goes about his business, never asking questions and keeping his nose clean.

But late one night, the turf war spills into Leonard's world after a gut-shot Richie and a gun-waving Francis burst into his shop following a run-in with the rival LaFontaine gang. It would be a disservice to reveal much more, but let us just say the rest of the story uncoils over the course of one long night as Leonard tries to outwit all the various underworld players who factor into the film's mazelike story. Along the way we learn there's a rat in the Boyle family's ranks. There's also a tape containing damning information that could take the Boyles down if it falls into the wrong hands. And what of the Outfit? How do they fit into all of this?

There are several touches Moore brings that can make his film quite attractive. For example, there's an exquisite early montage showing Leonard crafting a suit from scratch. It's well edited, well shot, and accompanied by a well-oiled voice-over from Rylance. There's also the way two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat's score pulls us into the period during some scenes while effectively increasing the tension in others.

Yet even with top-notch production design from veteran Gemma Jackson and great interior work from director of photography Dick Pope, "The Outfit" is far more theatrical than cinematic. In fact, throw in a printed program and an intermission and you would swear you were watching a stage play. That's not a bad thing -- especially when the knotty story really kicks into gear. But there are moments when the staginess sticks out and certain limitations become more apparent. Still, a good script can overcome such constraints, and that's mostly the case here.

But much of the movie's success rides on the back of the poker-faced Rylance. His character is a man of few words, but the actor and the screenplay (written by Moore and Johnathan McClain) deftly keeps us fixated on everything he says. We learn there's more to Leonard than meets the eye, but Rylance never tips his hand. I also have to give props to Nikki Amuka-Bird who has a small but riveting role as Violet, the boss of the LaFontaine gang. She has charisma to spare, and I could watch an entire movie dedicated just to her.

"The Outfit" may be a movie with noticeable limitations, but it mostly overcomes them and in many ways utilizes them to the benefit of its story. Wily first-time director Graham Moore weaves a nostalgic and gnarly web with enough twists and turns to keep his audience engaged. And it helps to have a seasoned and steady actor like Rylance who always seems perfectly in tune with the characters he plays. Here he's a good anchor and is handed a role custom fitted to his strengths.

‘The Outfit’

86 Cast: Mark Rylance, Dylan O’Brien, Johnny Flynn, Zoey Deutch, Simon Russell Beale, Alan Mehdizadeh, Nikki Amuka-Bird

Director: Graham Moore

Rating: R

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing theatrically


  photo  Apprentice tailor Mable (Zoey Deutch) and her meticulous mentor Leonard (Mark Rylance) have a sophisticated but tender father- daughter-type relationship in Graham Moore’s “The Outfit.”

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