Pulling the Thread – The Outfit

In 2014, Graham Moore was relatively unknown. A novelist and writer for the short-lived TV spinoff of 10 Things I Hate About You, Moore garnered some attention a couple of years before for writing a screenplay adapted from a biography of Alan Turing, one of the pioneers of computer programming. That script eventually became The Imitation Game, which won him the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay.

He came out of nowhere, and seemingly disappeared just as quickly. Now, eight years later, he’s finally penned another script, this time a collaboration with TV actor Jonathan McClain (of Retired at 35, not to be confused with the differently spelled hero of the Die Hard series), and for the first time in a feature-length film, he also directs (he previously helmed a 2008 short called The Waiting Room). This new project is The Outfit, a neo-noir mystery starring the inimitable Mark Rylance.

After seeing this latest work, the most important thing I can say is, how does this man not have an absolute slew of credits? The Outfit is by no means perfect. I don’t even think it exactly measures up to his previous achievement. But it’s fun, well-paced, and has some really strong production values to go with its economical cast and story. If you’re looking for a peaceful afternoon at the movies, you’d be hard-pressed to find something more perfectly suited to your needs.

Rylance carries every moment as a bespoke “cutter” – he makes a point of distinguishing himself from a “tailor” – named Leonard Burling, who operates a shop in 1956 Chicago. Through narration, he explains his meticulous methods in creating a suit for his clientele, which as we quickly learn, includes local gangsters. As he explains to his secretary, Mabel (Zoey Deutch), if he only accepted “angels” as customers, he’d have none at all, especially in a town like Chicago. Mabel is uncomfortable with the arrangement, worried for his well-being (they have something of a surrogate father-daughter relationship). She collects snow globes of destinations from around the world, and wishes to travel, but not until she’s sure that Leonard will be safe.

So he maintains a non-aggressive neutrality with all involved, merely going about his business as several mobsters leave letters and other correspondences in a locked drop-box in his back room. His judgment-free silence is what buys him peace and relative protection. That said, he can’t help but stick his nose into Mabel’s affairs with well-meaning concern from time to time.

Derisively referred to as “English” by the hotheaded Richie Boyle (Dylan O’Brien) – son of one of the city’s big bosses, Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale from The Death of Stalin), who was also coincidentally Leonard’s first customer when he emigrated to America – Leonard finds himself in the crosshairs as tensions begin to rise between warring families and the police. Boyle lieutenant Francis (Johnny Flynn) suspects a rat in their midst, and needs to figure out who it is, as they’ve been given an FBI surveillance tape by a shadow group known as The Outfit, a network overseeing the most successful organized crime units in the country, and which seeks to recruit Boyle if his goons can track down the source.

All the pieces are in place for an excellent climax, which begins one night, after Leonard closes shop. Richie and Francis, rivals for Roy’s attention and favor, arrive in the dead of night, Richie injured after they were ambushed by rivals while trying to secure the means to play the audio tape that will reveal their traitor. Francis demands use of Leonard’s shop as a base of operations, and from that point on, the film becomes a fast-paced bit of pulp excitement as loyalties are tested, clues are disseminated, and bodies begin to pile up, with the true mystery being who possesses the unseen hand that’s manipulating the proceedings.

Some of Moore’s writing here is a bit too obvious to be fully immersive, as doorbells and phone rings happen at the precise moments where answers are about to be revealed. Similarly, a standoff occurs when the tape itself goes missing, but it’s 100% clear to anyone watching who took it. But in a way, that’s part of the fun. Moore is deliberately teasing the audience to get us to play along, and there is the slightest amount of satisfaction in knowing we’re smarter than the characters on screen about to kill each other. So for the most part, it works, even if it does feel way too contrived and convenient at points.

Part of that is down to Rylance’s performance. Ever since he won his own Oscar for Bridge of Spies, he’s been the go-to for filmmakers who want a soft-spoken but devilishly charming character actor. It’s a bit rare to see him take center stage, but it’s entirely welcome, because first and foremost, he is an actor, and he never fails to deliver a convincing performance. His believability is never in doubt. There’s just something about his charisma and line readings that make you hang on his every word and trust what he says.

There’s an absolutely brilliant moment midway through where he confesses that he’s the rat, and after a tense moment, it’s played off as a joke for the express purpose of undercutting the mood. It’s a note-perfect scene because of Rylance’s innate sense of credibility, with Richie only getting the joke because of Leonard’s – and Rylance’s – unassuming and earnest nature.

It’s sort of like the reality series, The Mole. If you’ve never seen it – or any of its international iterations (my friends and I hold weekly viewing parties for the Dutch version) – it’s a cooperative show where the whole cast ostensibly works together to complete tasks in order to earn money for a winner-take-all pot at the end of the season. However, one of them is secretly working for the production to sabotage the others and keep the money totals low. The overall task for the others is to figure out the Mole’s identity, with each episode featuring a quiz about the tasks and the Mole themselves, always ending with the crucial question, “Who is the Mole?” Whoever does worst on the quiz each week is eliminated, until only one person is standing to claim the bank and the Mole is revealed.

I’ve always said that if I ever got to be on the show, not only would I want to be the Mole, I would come right out and admit it was me. In the very first episode of the very first American season, one of the contestants (ironically the first one eliminated) asked of the group, “Will the Mole please step forward?” It was a joke meant to foster some calm affinity (especially since they all just skydived for their first task and several were on edge), but had I been there, and had I been the Mole, I would have jumped into the center of their circle. It’s the ultimate mind fuck. Do they believe me? Do they not? Would I be that obvious? It’s like that old cliché about confusing robots with a logical paradox like saying, “This statement is a lie.”

That’s the sort of moment Rylance creates by telling Richie he’s the rat, and it’s that kind of juicy gamesmanship that Moore peppers throughout the film. All of the answers to the central mystery are hidden in plain sight, and it’s fun to try to suss them out. It’s also a credit to the production design team for how well they’re able to appoint the three-room shop set that houses the entire film. All the clues and solutions are within arm’s reach of the small cast, but there’s a tremendous economy of space to allow them to alter the course of events as the needs of the scene dictate. And even if you don’t want to take an active role in discovering the plot, you have Rylance as a cipher and good-humored guide to the proceedings (there’s a delightfully clever runner about blue jeans, for example). As he says, part of his job is getting to know his customers, so that he can provide exactly what they want, even if they don’t actually know what they want. As such, in a meta sense, Rylance knows how to give the audience a satisfying story, and – forgive the pun – tailors his performance to suit that need.

As I said, the script isn’t perfect, and there are a few instances where Moore overreaches I think, giving us scenes that don’t match the overall tone of the picture. But that doesn’t stop it all from being some solid fun. I can say the same thing about most of the cast, because this is very much Rylance’s film, with the others just filling in gaps as needed, some faring better than others in their deliveries.

But as Leonard explains in that opening narration, it’s never quite as basic as what you see on the surface. Yes, you can very easily figure out who’s playing who, but there are still finer details to learn as we go that make the journey worth taking. And like his star, Moore is plying the tools of his craft – not art, as Leonard specifies, craft – to build a layered mystery that’s enjoyable in its relatively straightforward simplicity. The Outfit is that rare film that allows you to turn your brain off while at the same time engaging with your deductive reasoning skills should you choose to go that route. Whether you want to go casual or dive deep, Moore and Rylance give you a comforting fit.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who are your favorite character actors? When’s the last time you got a tailored suit? Let me know!

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