“It’s been done before” used as a critique of a film is bad form on all parts. Of course, it’s been done before! That’s how art works! In fact, it may behoove the critique to say that adaptive originality is really the only originality that exists. A film that takes inspiration from other pieces of art and mimics or creatively alludes to the past is a film well made. Such is the case with Graham Moore’s The Outfit.
The Outfit is the story of an English tailor (Mark Rylance) living in 1950’s Chicago. He lives a quiet life and has no family. His only real relation seems to be with his secretary (Zoey Deutch). However, Leonard the tailor lets suspicious characters (i.e., The Mob) use a mailbox to send messages, of which he likely doesn’t know the content. Leonard usually turns a blind eye to these messages and their senders, but one winter’s eve sees the Mob receive communication from The Outfit, a threatening organization asking a special favor. Things take an eventful turn, and Leonard becomes involved in a cutthroat gang rivalry.
From the get-go, The Outfit is a gangster film with influences all the way back to The Godfather. Fans of Scorsese and the like will not be disappointed, as The Outfit presents all the classic Mob tropes without making them feel cliched or disappointing. The film is gritty and darkly lit, gently honoring the films that came before. The Outfit also exhibits characteristics of theatrical films. The narrative takes place entirely in the tailor’s shop, with Leonard as the only constant. Various characters enter and leave, but the camera never does. The Outfit remissness of dramatized plays, like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or Doubt, and emulates the cleverness that comes when writers work with limited space for their performers. The self-imposed limitations are where the film benefits most – it’s what sets it apart.
To that point, the film also functions as a sort of mystery, reminiscent but not derivative of Agatha Christie’s work. There are very few characters, and the suspense, in most scenes, is rampant. Perhaps the greatest genius, though, is that the set-up is more mob movie than mystery, so it’s a delight when the tides start to turn. The many twists and turns keep the viewer surprised and intrigued at what might have otherwise been a slowly-paced project. Instead, there is nothing else to do except being impressed by Leonard’s thinking and, therefore, Moore’s writing.
Rylance quietly shines in a role that feels like it was built for him. The performance is filled with depth and precision, emblematic of the careful tailor he portrays. Likewise, Dylan O’Brien and Johnny Flynn are perfectly cast. Flynn especially gives a textured performance. A careless actor would have been melodramatic in the role, but Flynn is delightfully measured whilst exhibiting a range of complex emotions. Zoey Deutch is the film’s only misfire. Deutch is a capable actress, but wrong for the part and seemingly unable to match the acting style of the rest of the cast.
The production design is the glue that holds the film together. As the narrative is pointedly limited in where the characters are allowed, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the set. For the most part, the tailor’s shop reflects Leonard the tailor: quiet, simple, and clean. The shop is pristine yet bare. A viewer who pays attention will notice keys to Leonard’s past. The muted colors in both the lighting and costuming represent the darkness of masculinity, a theme that runs throughout the film. The world of The Outfit feels realistic and supports the narrative events well.
The Outfit owes a lot to films of the past, but it blends its ideas in such a way that something brand new and very entertaining was created. The film knows exactly what it wants to be and accomplishes what it sets out to do, a true mark of cinematic proficiency. It borrows, but it doesn’t steal. After all, it’s not easy to get mob film fans and theater fans to agree on something, but if there were ever a film to do it, The Outfit would be the one. Ultimately a diamond in the rough, this film is not one to miss.