Cutting is an exacting profession. That’s evident from a montage at the start of “The Outfit,” over which Leonard Burling (Mark Rylance) describes the precise act of measuring fabric, chalking out a pattern, and cutting it. Burling is an English cutter who ended up moving to Chicago and opening up a shop there, for reasons that are initially murky. He has a receptionist, Mable (Zoey Deutch), who he thinks of like a daughter, even though she’s not particularly interested in learning his trade and itching to blow this town and see the world—her growing collection of snow globes from various countries is evidence of that. Burling is unassuming and mild-mannered, and stays out of other people’s business. That includes the pair of men who show up during the day and stash envelopes in a box in the shop’s back room.
It’s the way the interests of the mob, Burling, and Mable intersect that forms the basis of “The Outfit,” a period gangster thriller that is the first directorial effort from Oscar-winning screenwriter Graham Moore, who cowrote the screenplay with Johnathan McClain. The story is set almost entirely over the course of one fateful night, the interior of the tailor shop the film’s sole setting. After roughly establishing all the characters, the careful relationship between Burling and the gang who use his shop is thrown out of whack after one of the gang members, Ritchie (Dylan O’Brien, putting on some Cagney-esque “whaddaya hear whaddaya say” accent that really worked for me), shows up on the arm of his cohort Francis (Johnny Flynn), a bullet in his stomach. The pair have just escaped a confrontation with the rival LaFontaine gang, and are in possession of a tape that contains an FBI recording of their operations. As other characters come and go throughout the night, loyalties shift and true motives are revealed.
“The Outfit” (its title a reference both to Burling’s line of work and an organization founded by Al Capone to protect criminal groups from the law) draws a lot from films of the era it is set in (mid-1950s) for its format and aesthetic. The film’s Saul Bass-inspired teaser poster boasts artwork in the same style as Bass’s design for 1959’s “Anatomy of a Murder.” It’s a chamber piece in which at least a portion of the plot involves characters trying to hide a murder from other characters in a way that clearly nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller “Rope.” The tape, at the end of the day, is only the macguffin, a device that exists for the sole purpose of getting all these different people who want to kill each other together in a room and see how things shake out. As conversational as much of the movie it, it is punctuated by startling notes of graphic violence. “The Outfit” pulls all this off in an entertaining fashion without ever feeling derivative, even though the story, twists and all, isn’t really as clever as it seems to think it is.
What really helps sell “The Outfit” for those who are less apt to get excited over the film’s old-school aesthetic are its great performances. Sure, some of them, like Flynn and Simon Russell Beale’s Roy Boyle, feel more like an imitation of old movie gangsters as opposed to crafting a real character. But Deutch is a solid, not typical-for-the-era female lead, and O’Brien gets to both exuberantly chew on the scenery and play some legitimately great scenes, the pinnacle of which is a tense conversation between him and Burling. Rylance proves again what a versatile actor he is as the lead. His gentle face, kind eyes and smile, and the mild-mannered personality he imbues Burling with is at odds with the character we see emerge as the film clips along, one who makes quick, cunning decisions, and who no one would ever suspect to be as merciless as he ultimately reveals himself as. I’m not sure that “The Outfit” is the best evidence of Moore’s talents as a director, but it’s a great example of the entertainment value a no-frills thriller can have with an intriguing setting and well-drawn characters.
“The Outfit” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 105 minutes. Rated R.