What is the dramatic equivalent to a bespoke tailor? The Outfit gives good reason to consider Mark Rylance (Don’t Look Up) as an actor’s equal to a good cutter. Rylance, best known as one of those character actors who reliably steals any film in which he appears, relishes a rare leading role. His performance as Leonard in The Outfit nicely mirrors the meticulousness of his bespoke tailor. His carefully crafted turn considers every measurement, every cut, every stitch, and every finishing. This feature directorial debut from Graham Moore, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game is a similarly measured work. The Outfit is an old school espionage drama with twists at every turn.
Rylance stars as Leonard, who runs a quiet little shop in post-war Chicago. Fastidious about his work, Leonard asserts that he’s a cutter, not a tailor, and that his business of fashioning the best threads in the Windy City come from years of education on London’s Saville Row. His clients range from distinguished gentlemen to unruly mobsters. However, these days are still in the recent memory of Al Capone, so even the most violent men need to look their best as they run Chicago’s streets.
Leonard’s shop has an odd quirk, however. Behind the well-hung jackets and carefully folded pocket squares is a black box. It’s a mailbox, used by the hoods who loyally frequent the shop for Leonard’s killer threads. The mobsters aren’t especially secretive about the contents, particularly as they try to catch the attention of Leonard’s young assistant, Mabel (Zoey Deutch). The gents murmur about something called The Outfit as they retrieve mail slipped anonymously into Leonard’s perfectly trustworthy shop.
The reach of The Outfit quickly spills into Leonard’s shop. One violent night, his customer Richie (Dylan O’Brien) stumbles into the shop with a bullet in his gut. Richie is the son of the reigning mob boss and his dad is among Leonard’s most loyal customers. However, Richie escapes the mob shootout with the help of his second-in-command Francis (Johnny Flynn) who quickly and violently takes control of the situation. Francis recruits Leonard for his skills as a tailor to sew Richie up. That’s the least of the cutter’s worries though. The night is just beginning.
One wrong turn invites another as The Outfit deftly increases the stakes. Nobody is as they seem. Especially Leonard, who navigates the tense situation as nimbly as his fingers work a needle.
The Outfit simmers its tension as the action never leaves Leonard’s shop. Everything unfolds within Leonard’s workroom or the in the front of house. Props assume new meaning as Leonard fastidiously mends clothes throughout the evening. Suitcases dart to and fro. Cigarette lighters and cigarette cases provide misdirection, while clothing chests hold corpses as the bodies accumulate. The clothing designed by Sophie O’Neill and Zac Posen, meanwhile, smartly creates an environment of style and class. Clothes make the man, and it’s striking how much the costuming shapes our impressions of this world. Despite the confined settings, however, The Outfit never feels stagy. Rather, its restraint keeps the tension finely balanced. These are, after all, the most haute couture of criminals.
The film finds a smart contrast between O’Brien and Flynn as the catalysts for the drama. As Richie, O’Brien is suave and charismatic. He’s a man of high class and taste. He’s a mobster with manners, and a dashing charming. Flynn, meanwhile, is perfectly cast to make Francis the foil to Richie’s privileged upbringing. Rough and gruff, he injects The Outfit with a hint of menace. He also injects a surprisingly stronger chemistry with Rylance as the cutter gradually relates to the ruffian better than he does to the young kingpin.
Rylance’s enigmatic performance, moreover, makes Leonard the biggest piece of the puzzle. On paper, a thriller about a man who makes clothes might sound low-stakes. However, The Outfit fits comfortably in the school of measured and talky thrillers that trade on information and character, rather than action and energy. Fans of John Le Carré espionage in particular will button themselves up for the drama that unfolds. Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama, moreover, proves that men with thimbles can be just as exciting as men with pistols. For audiences who like a mature flick that keeps them guessing, The Outfit is stitched ever so smartly.