The Outfit is a classy noir film set in 1956 Chicago. Rival gangs are vying for territorial control and FBI agents are trying to find evidence against them. But instead of a hard-boiled detective, the protagonist of this film is a mild-mannered tailor, and his feisty receptionist is not a middle-aged wisecracker who has been around the block a few times but a fresh and lovely ingénue, more like a daughter than a flirtatious partner.
As the film opens, Leonard (Mark Rylance), a meek, balding, deferential Englishman, enters his bespoke menswear shop and begins to work on a suit. “To most people a suit is two pieces, the jacket and the trousers. But it’s actually made of four fabrics and 138 pieces,” Leonard explains to no one as he carefully measures the dummy, lays out the pattern, chalks the fabric, and cuts the soft wool with long sure strokes. One small mistake and the fabric won’t lie properly. He’ll have to start over. This is important to remember.
While deftly and precisely hand-stitching the sleeves, he continues speaking to no one. “I had a customer once who brought in an ill-fitting suit. I hadn’t made it. The shoulders were wrong. He insisted the shoulders were fine and the sleeves were wrong. I agreed to change the sleeves — and then I fixed the shoulders. He was pleased with the result. The suit fit perfectly.” This is also important to remember.
One small mistake and the fabric won’t lie properly. This is important to remember.
Leonard’s first customer in America happens to have been Boss Roy (Simon Russell Beale), a leader of one of the gangs. Leonard has been outfitting Roy and his family ever since. Roy’s son Richie (Dylan O’Brien) and right-hand man Francis (Johnny Flynn) use Leonard’s shop as a secret mail drop. Leonard keeps his head down and his eyes on his fabric whenever his gangland customers enter his shop. “I’ve never asked about what you do. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to be involved. I just want to be left alone,” he insists. His head is bowed, shoulders drooped, body language submissive, as he continues to stitch. Yet he’s as wary as a cornered dog, avoiding eye contact and unnecessary movement but clearly considering all his options.
Like it or not, Leonard is going to become very involved on the night Richie and Francis burst into his shop after a shootout with the police and a rival gang, the LaFontaines. Richie and Francis are intent on obtaining an audiotape that could expose both Boss Roy and the rat who trapped him. The rest of the film is full of twists and turns as Leonard works deftly to stitch together a story that might keep himself and his receptionist, Mabel (Zoey Deutch), out of the trap. The film takes place entirely inside Leonard’s shop, creating a claustrophobic tone and adding to the sense of entrapment.
Leonard maintains his calm by continuing to work on his suit. “I’m not a tailor,” he quietly corrects someone as he continues to work through the night. “A tailor attaches buttons and shortens trousers. I’m a cutter.” The tool of his trade is a pair of shears that he has owned since the beginning of his career. This is important too. In fact, everything Leonard says will be important to understanding the plot, though you won’t realize it until later, and that’s one reason I liked this film so much.
The suspense builds slowly as the pieces of the plot come together, almost like a suit being made.
The other reason is Mark Rylance, one of my favorite actors. He isn’t an actor, he’s a thespian, and the tool of his trade is his sharp instinct for character. Rylance has the kind of sad-sack face that can easily be lost in a crowd, yet he imbues his characters with an inner strength that is palpable on screen and on stage. As artistic director of the new Globe Theatre in London from 1995–2005, he has been reimagining Shakespeare for the past 30 years, discovering nuances in the scripts and developing keen insights that bring new light to the plays. I’ve seen all of his Broadway shows, some of them more than once. Now Hollywood has discovered him, and a whole new audience has access to his talent. I recommend Bridge of Spies and Dunkirk if you haven’t seen his work before. (See my reviews in Liberty: Bridge and Dunkirk.)
The Outfit is quiet, tense, and taut. The suspense builds slowly as the pieces of the plot come together, almost like a suit being made. It has aha moments that will make you gasp, and quiet moments that will draw you in. I highly recommend it.