‘The Outfit’ Film: Screenwriter Graham Moore’s directorial debut
‘The Outfit’ is Gangster Drama About Mob Tailor Loses the Thread. Berlinale 2022: Screenwriter Graham Moore’s directorial debut plays like the first draft of a theater piece rather than the thriller it intends to be.
Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance’s special gift is an appearance of unspoiled authenticity, as if someone from real life had wandered into the frame, or — considering his extensive, legend-status background — onto the stage, his very presence ready either to blend in, or to shake things up.
It’s a talent that puts him in good stead to rivet our attention in establishing his role as a dedicated tailor facing dire circumstances in Graham Moore’s “The Outfit.” But it’s not enough to offset what’s questionably designed and ill-fitting about this claustrophobic, one-night-in-one-location thriller.
Moore, who wrote the film adaptation of the Alan Turing biopic “The Imitation Game,” directs for the first time from an original screenplay (co-written with Johnathan McClain). He was inspired by the alluring family detail that a beloved doctor grandfather of Moore’s had regularly treated a New Jersey mobster. In this case, the unassuming figure of quiet complicity created for Rylance to play is master cutter Leonard Burling, a Savile Row–trained transplant to Chicago, whom we first see opening his bespoke shop on a snowy day.
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The year is 1956, but the functional, tucked-away vibe of this Englishman’s modest workspace has a timeless feel (thanks to veteran production designer Gemma Jackson), and as we watch Leonard start his day measuring and cutting, Rylance’s softly authoritative baritone narrates a tailor’s philosophy of sorts — the key points being that the job requires reading people well (what they need versus what they want), and that a two-piece suit may present as a simple whole, but is in fact made up of many intricate parts and hidden skills.
This WWII survivor of the blitz may look the other way when brusque, well-dressed gangsters for the Boyle crime family parade in and out, picking up stuffed envelopes from a slitted box. But he’s also protective toward his assistant Mable (Zoey Deutch), a neighborhood gal with dreams who’s wary of falling in with the likes of brash, handsome mob scion Richie Boyle (Dylan O’Brien). Boyle, meanwhile, has suspicions about ambitious tough guy Francis (Johnny Flynn, “Emma.”), who once took a chamber of lead to save his boss. Francis, it turns out, might well be scheming for more power if, as rumor has it, the nationwide organization The Outfit is thinking of folding the Boyles into their syndicate.
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What kicks off the film’s narrative eventfulness is an offscreen ambush by a rival clan of the Boyles, the consequences of which come bleeding into the tailor’s workshop in the middle of the night when Leonard is working late. As Richie and Francis regroup, with the tailor violently pressured into assistance — the next best thing to a doctor when sewing things up is a Leonard — Moore and McClain proceed to introduce a MacGuffin (an incriminating audiotape), a target (an unknown rat), the likelihood of more bloodshed, and more twists.
But what “The Outfit” doesn’t generate much of is organic suspense. With an air of duplicitousness telegraphed early on, and a handful of scenes coming off like information dumps instead of natural exchanges, many of the story mechanics strain for believability. Where the confining of events to the shop might have been a fun writing exercise, it smacks of the first draft of a play rather than a credibly sustained piece of tension.
It also suffers from our modern thriller era’s final-twist syndrome, an addiction to holding information back until the end as some kind of gotcha shock, when mostly it leaves one feeling deprived of genuine drama and full characterization. It especially hampers the totality of Rylance’s portrayal of sudden ingenuity in a crisis — we can figure out there’s something up his sleeve — and traps him in a filmmaker’s gambit rather than the story of a character we want to get behind. Moore cites Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” as an inspiration for “The Outfit,” but he seems not to have absorbed the Master’s definition of suspense, which puts trust in giving more information to the audience, not less.
Another problem is the uneven cast orbiting around Rylance, frequently wrenching us out of the verisimilitude he effortlessly creates. Deutch struggles with an awkwardly tinny accent and a weakly written part, while O’Brien — saddled with the screenplay’s clunkiest tough-guy outbursts — barely registers. Flynn is a solidly volatile, live-wire presence, but even the great Simon Russell Beale, making a stakes-raising appearance as the Boyle patriarch, is something of a wash. And as a climactic ingredient in the showdown, Nikki Amuka-Bird (“Old”) has a wonderfully regal air of menace, but it’s too little, too late.
The overall effect of “The Outfit” is something performed, rather than lived out, as if Moore were trying on a coat made for John Huston, and last altered by David Mamet. So many elements seem like they’re in place — Dick Pope’s winter-interior cinematography, Sophie O’Neill’s period threads, and of course, Rylance, biding his time — but it’s little more than a costume movie.
“The Outfit” opens in US theaters March 18.