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“We can talk about shocking originality later,” says Leonard (Mark Rylance), the enigmatic tailor at the center of The Outfit. “The point now is skill.” It’s a craftsperson’s ethos that also provides a mantra for the film, a taut crime thriller that eschews visual flourishes and instead delights in the clockwork-like machinations of its twisty script. Written by Johnathan McClain and Graham Moore (who also directed), The Outfit is a nifty exercise in plot that displays a keen understanding of its genre, but what starts out as artistic restraint soon starts to feel like a straitjacket. There’s no need to shock, but a bit of originality never hurt anyone.
Set in a single location, The Outfit could easily have been a play, and if it were, you could imagine the round of applause when Rylance walked on the stage. The Oscar-winning British actor with a gentle charisma plays a familiar character in the crime genre; a man with a violent past now seeking a quiet life. Leonard left London years ago to open a tailor’s shop in Chicago. It’s 1956, and organized crime is rampant, but Leonard cares only about his work and his young receptionist, Mable (Zoey Deutch), who he treats like a daughter. It’s strange that a man aspiring to peace and quiet would allow his shop to be used as a drop-off point for the local crime family led by Roy (Simon Russell Beale), but as fans of the crime genre know: No man can escape his past.
When two gangsters burst into Leonard’s office one evening, one carrying a bullet in his gut, the plot lurches to life. There are uneasy alliances, hidden deceptions, and surprise reveals. It’s not that every twist is foreseeable, but rather it’s so formulaic that the twists barely fulfill your expectations. It leaves the cast to do the heavy lifting, but even there, the manpower is lacking. The classically trained Rylance and Beale bring an invaluable heft to the lightweight story, but the stylistic gulf between their gravitas and the more modern, relaxed attitudes of their scene-mates makes it difficult to fully buy into this world. Several of the supporting actors struggle with the rhythmic, stylized noir dialogue—that must explain why one interjects a certain obscenity into virtually every line of dialogue—and they seem stiff in their period costumes. Try as they might, some people just don’t look right in a fedora.
The hands-off direction from Moore doesn’t help. The Outfit is set entirely in Leonard’s office, with most taking place in the back room where the tailor does his work. Moore does well to keep his camera in the right places, ensuring the viewer understands the geography of the room and its inhabitants, but his total lack of interest in creating a visual style is glaring. Crime lends itself to the shadows, but Moore shoots everything under what feels like a sky of bright yellow lights, foregoing opportunities to create texture in a constricted space. It’s a bizarre decision built perhaps on an overconfidence in his actors to tell the complete story, while unwittingly exposing the staginess of the material.
Between its embrace of convention, the talent gap between its actors, and the lack of visual storytelling, The Outfit only has its script to recommend it, and admittedly there’s some pleasure in watching its gears click into place. But that’s just cleverness; it’s a shallow reward that leaves no room for revelation. Not even the dependable Rylance can find a compelling note. His quiet, steady presence is always welcome, but Leonard’s predictable character arc leaves little room for him to create shading and nuance. There are no shadows in him, either. It’s fun watching him move deliberately through the increasingly bloody chaos, and his bursts of British humor, dry as an English biscuit, bring wit to a world that badly needs it. But it’s not enough. A spare bit of intelligence cannot lift a film whose only reason to exist is to delight in itself.
The Outfit opens in theaters on March 18.