An impressively written and wrought gangster thriller set in 1950s Chicago that is both dramatic and suspenseful, The Outfit marks the directorial debut of Oscar winning American screenwriter and author Graham Moore (The Imitation Game). The Outfit also places itself as one of Mark Rylance’s sharpest performances, whose impressively mounted performance recalls the work of old Hollywood films. Audiences should be pleased with the film’s taut narrative that delivers enough suspense and blood to eventually reach a wide audience.
The tale, which takes place over one night in one setting, with a handful of characters, is very theatrical and verbose by design. A trend we are seeing more and more in modern cinema due to production costs and COVID-19 safety. The film starts off like a character study, where we are introduced to a tailor named Leonard (Rylance), or what he likes to call himself a “cutter,” who cuts and tailors designer suits for his local clientele, who just happen to be local mobsters of organized crime. With echoes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread merged with aspects of Reservoir Dogs, we too have a gangster who’s shot after a heist gone awry who bleeds out and refuses to go to the hospital to prevent drawing attention to himself at the hospital, while a rat is certainly lurking in the mob circle.
Like Reservoir Dogs, the film has some sharply written dialogue, and Moore’s debut feature moves along quite well despite its limited setting. The cinematography by Dick Pope (Another Year, Secrets & Lies) is meticulously shot, and the score by Alexandre Desplat amps up the intrigue and suspense. The film’s decor, art direction, and wardrobe also add a rich texture to the film. The end result is a very familiar, but overall thrilling and well-crafted film.
The tale begins with Leonard narrating the film, and we find out through exchanges that he relocated to Chicago because of the rise of blue jeans, thanks to James Dean. It’s a very illogical plot point considering jeans were popular in the late 50s everywhere, not just London, but it would make sense that Leonard would have his own tailor shop in a neighborhood where mobsters were always in demand for elegant suits. Leonard despises being referred to as a tailor because he does more than just sew with a needle and thread. He also makes multiple lines of clothes, and cuts and trims them in various ensembles, and always strives for perfection. His work ethic is what drives him to succeed in business in his region and why he’s always turning profits.
Leonard’s day of routines gets disrupted one night when a young mobster named Richie (Dylan O’Brien), who’s the son of a respected mob boss, arrives at Leonard’s store with his crime partner, Francis (Johnny Flynn). Richie and Francis were ambushed by a rival mafia group, but Richie took a bullet to the stomach. With the hospital off the table, and no time for a doctor, Leonard was instantly pressured and strong armed to stitch Richie up with his own needles. It’s a very visceral and harrowing scene, and you can’t look away.
Leonard is exhausted, but eventually agrees once Francis coerces him and a gun is pointed at his face. While it is revealed that someone in the mob circle is a rat, and someone recorded information and discussions that could incriminate all the mob families in the Chicago region, while Richie’s life is also on the line if something goes awry, situations get tense, which ends up putting Leonard in an unwanted cat-and-mouse game where he must make choices to advance him out of scenarios that lead to him being murdered in the night as information comes through that the feds were tipped off and there is a recorded tape.
As the plot thickens on the rat, unexpected chaos arises, which leads to an intense confrontation between Richie and Francis as they both start accusing each other of tipping off the FBI and they both want possession of the tape. Meanwhile, Leonard gets more visitors throughout the night, including Richie’s father, Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale), who is trying to find Richie, who goes missing after his gunshot wound. Francis ends up bringing Leonard’s receptionist, Mable (Zoey Deutch), back to the shop as she begins holding suspicion of Richie’s whereabouts.
It’s this part of the film that becomes the most engrossing and anxiety-inducing, and it gets even more nail-biting as you wonder just how Leonard is going to get out of certain situations. Rylance, whose performance in the recent Don’t Look Up was very one-dimensional and just a flat-out caricature, is on top of his game here. He delivers a far wittier and layered performance as it bounces between deadpan hilarity and class, where you can’t help but root for him to navigate himself out of such chaos. The elements of who the rat is keep the viewer hooked and keep the momentum of the narrative moving.