Producers: Amy Jackson, Ben Browning and Scoop Wasserstein Director: Graham Moore Screenplay: Graham Moore and Johnathan McClain Cast: Mark Rylance, Dylan O’Brien, Johnny Flynn, Zoey Deutch, Simon Russell Beale, Alan Mehdizadeh and Nikki Amuka-Bird Distributor: Focus Features
Totally artificial but utterly engrossing, this second film from writer-director Graham Moore (“The Imitation Game”) is a thriller as cerebral puzzle, and one you’ll be glad to play. If you fondly remember “Deathtrap” and “Sleuth,” which of course began as plays (and “The Outfit” feels as though it could easily have started onstage), you should enjoy it immensely.
Given the structure of the piece, which doles out information bit by bit in the form of dialogue that is often misdirection, it would be churlish to reveal too much about the progression of the plot, but it’s a period piece set in 1956 Chicago, in a southside neighborhood controlled by long-time mob boss Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale), whose dominance is facing a challenge from a gang led by Violet La Fontaine (Nikki Amuka-Bird). The area is distinguished by the presence of L. Burling Bespoke, a shop where Leonard Burling (Mark Rylance), a “cutter” (not a mere tailor, he emphasizes) who used to work on London’s Savile Row, hand-crafts fine men’s suits and coats; Ray is among his regular customers.
Leonard’s shop also serves as a drop-off point for Ray’s crew, who leave messages and payoffs in a box in the cutting room. Ray’s son Richie (Dylan O’Brien), accompanied by Ray’s trusted nephew and lieutenant Francis (Johnny Flynn) stop by occasionally to pick up whatever’s been deposited in the box. Richie is also romantically involved with Leonard’s pretty secretary Mable (Zoey Deutsch), a local girl with dreams of travelling to far-off places.
The comparatively calm situation heats up when Richie comes in to collect the latest envelopes from the box and finds a warning that the mob’s operations have been compromised by a mole providing information to the FBI. That suddenly turns the shop into the place where the various characters congregate in varying combinations; violence escalates and dead bodies are not long in coming, all spurred by a tape and a briefcase that fill the role of McGuffin.
The film proceeds through narration by Leonard, describing events by comparison to the more than two hundred stages that must be completed perfectly to produce a perfect bespoke suit, and the explanations and bits of advice he gives to other characters along the way to prod them to act in the ways he thinks necessary to secure his own safety and—perhaps—to achieve some ultimate goal. Since these change as circumstances require, one can’t be confident that anything he says is true; but gradually as he reveals more detail one develops an overall sense of who is.
Rylance acts the part and speaks the dialogue as impeccably as Burling crafts his goods, and the stately pace adopted by Graham and editor William Goldenberg, while emphasizing the synthetic, theatrical nature of the piece, abets his performance, which is mirrored in the turns by the rest of the cast. The result can be termed affected, but that’s in line with the general character of the whole enterprise.
The excellence extends to Gemma Jackson’s elegant production design and the equally sophisticated camerawork of Dick Pop. As you might expect, given the thrust of the plot, the costumes play an important part in the film, and those designed by Sophie O’Neil and Zac Posen don’t disappoint. Nor does the score by Alexandre Desplat, which exhibits his usual imaginative take on things.
If “The Outfit”—a title with a double meaning, of course, like so much else in the film—has a flaw, it comes at the very end, when Graham and co-writer Johnathan McClain decided to add a “surprise” that might add a bit of excitement but is reminiscent of a device used by all too many other movies. It’s unworthy of a film that, until then, has happily resisted the inclination to conform to a standard, cookie-cutter pattern.
But it’s a lapse one can easily accept in view of the pleasure the picture affords.