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‘The Outfit’ Review: Mark Rylance Makes Clothes for Killers in Smart but Subdued Mobster Drama

Sure, Graham Moore's directorial debut is stylish, but it's the way he lets the performances shine that impresses most about this well-made gangster picture.

The Outfit
Courtesy of Focus Features

It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited than Mark Rylance to the lead role of Graham Moore’s “The Outfit” — the story of a Savile Row tailor (technically a “cutter,” but we’ll come back to that) who works more or less exclusively for an Irish mobster in 1956 Chicago. Rylance’s character, Leonard Burling, knows the rules: You keep your head down and your mouth shut, and in return, you’re treated almost like family by the Boyle clan. And if you don’t, well, we’ve all seen enough gangster pictures to know the consequences.

Leonard hardly ever leaves his workshop, and neither do we, in “The Outfit,” a contained, almost play-like film noir the likes of which John Huston and Nicholas Ray were making in the early ’50s. (To reinforce that connection visually, production designer Gemma Jackson has dialed down the palette to mostly browns and grays, while DP Dick Pope employs a single strong ceiling light — shaped almost like an open casket — that leaves much of Leonard’s atelier in shadows.)

Today, of course, this is yet another example of the COVID-era trend of drawing a handful of characters into a single location where some kind of crime takes place. But Moore, who won an Oscar for his sensitive “The Imitation Game” script, is a much better writer than the hacks behind most of those pandemic quickies, assembling “The Outfit” as a strategic guessing game, à la “Deathtrap” or “Sleuth,” when Leonard’s workspace becomes a boiler room of sorts after a late-night shootout. There’s a rat somewhere in the Boyle ranks, and that person’s identity will be uncovered in Leonard’s shop. If you’re picturing shades of Kubrick’s “The Killing,” but with better clothes, fewer bullets and a self-effacing English fellow quietly trying to defuse the situation, you wouldn’t be far off.

From these familiar elements, Moore has fashioned a smart little thriller — and a decent canvas on which to hone his directorial skills. The most original thing about “The Outfit” is Moore’s decision to focus on a former Savile Row “cutter.” That word is more expansive than “tailor,” we learn, describing someone who creates entire wardrobes, as opposed to specializing in just one garment. “Cutter” also sounds more dangerous, and though Leonard comes across impossibly mild-mannered at first, one look at his trusty pair of shears will have most audiences trying to guess who and how they’ll be used to stab later in the film.

Chances are, Leonard must have other clients beyond Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale) and his gang, though we don’t see many — apart from an early measuring-up montage in which we learn how a bespoke suit fits different personality types. “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” graduate Sophie O’Neill and fashion designer Zac Posen supply the duds, which aren’t flashy or attention-grabbing, the way Brian De Palma’s Armani-clad “Untouchables” ensembles were, but they reflect the care of handcraftsmanship — even in fragments, as Moore shows Rylance assembling them from scratch.

Leonard’s shop doubles as the drop spot for Boyle’s dealings. Men with broad shoulders, square jaws and large overcoats file through, leaving thick envelopes in a box on the wall, seldom staying long enough to remove their hats. Leonard acts as though it’s all perfectly normal, a silent keeper of secrets who seems interested in little other than his trade. “This isn’t art. It’s a craft,” he tells us in voiceover. Leonard’s narration can be deliberately deceptive at times, slyly hiding dimensions of his personality even as it reveals others (he is a man of few words, after all). He is not Keyser Söze, though audiences could be forgiven for assuming something similar.

Not long after Roy’s blockhead son Richie (Dylan O’Brien) and top gun Francis (Johnny Flynn) come stumbling into the shop, the former gut-shot, the latter waving his piece about like he intends to use it, Leonard takes a calculated risk. First he stitches up Richie — in a scene that’s about as wince-inducing as it sounds — and then he tells the none-too-bright Boyle scion, “I’m the rat. I’ve been selling information to your enemies, and I let the feds plant their bug.” Is he bluffing? Or else joking perhaps? Leonard seems like an honorable man, but he’s got that dry British quality that can be difficult to read. Moore milks the ambiguity for all it’s worth, since Rylance’s range is such that he could really be nothing more than this low-blood-pressure butler type, and yet, we can also picture him spraying the room with a Tommy gun, if the situation required it.

Moore has said that the idea for “The Outfit” came from reading a report that the first taped evidence collected by the feds in a big organized crime case was taken from bugs planted in a Chicago tailor shop. This is not a re-creation of that episode, though the detail triggered Moore’s imagination — he co-wrote this script with Johnathan McClain — and sent the pair down a winding trail of manipulation and mind games. It also supplied them with the double-entendre of the film’s title: Here, a maker of outfits finds himself caught in the midst of a massive power struggle, as onetime Boyle allies begin to suspect one another and an off-screen gang war erupts, ordered by a shadowy underworld organization known as “the Outfit.”

Despite being a mostly masculine story, the ensemble does include two women: Leonard’s danger-loving assistant, Mable (Zoey Deutch, whose modern air feels slightly out of place), and a rival crime boss (Nikki Amuka-Bird) from the LaFontaine clan, who drops by before the evening’s done. Looking fit in his fedora, Flynn adapts well to the period setting, as does Beale — which should surprise no one, given his Royal Shakespeare Company chops. But this is clearly Rylance’s film to shape, which he does by seemingly diminishing himself in the others’ presence. It’s an old Lee Strasberg acting trick: Let the other characters make thunder, then steal the film out from under them through one’s reactions. Rylance can go big, as he does in “Don’t Look Up” and “The Phantom of the Open,” but a role like this fits him best.