A tailor’s shop seems like the last place for a mob story to unfold. Yet, it’s here that the events of The Outfit take place, tight and self-contained in a way that is increasingly unusual in cinema. It feels almost like a play – but while sometimes critics say that to describe a film that comes across as overly stagey, it’s far from a backhanded compliment in The Outfit. This production is clever and nuanced, as the narrative slowly unfolds with plenty of twists and turns along the way. With strong performances from its lead cast, The Outfit is an unassuming adult drama and a pleasant surprise.
A reserved Englishman (Mark Rylance) owns a bespoke menswear shop in 1950s Chicago. He has a reverence for the work he does and the craft that goes into putting together a genuinely well-made suit. His talent would perhaps be better served amidst the high streets of London, but he goes where people can afford his wares, and that means he ends up making suits for the unsavory but stylish members of the Chicago mob.
He’s aware of their illicit activities and sometimes even complicit in them (he allows them to stay out of trouble, using his backroom as a drop spot where they can exchange communications out of the public eye). But for the most part, he distances himself from the criminal enterprise surrounding him. As much as possible, he leads a quiet, slightly melancholy life, with just his assistant Mable (Zoey Deutch) for companionship.
That is, until the night The Outfit takes place. When Francis (Johnny Flynn) and Richie (Dylan O’Brien), two young local mobsters, come storming into his shop, having just escaped from a gunfight gone terribly wrong. Suddenly, he is deeply and irrevocably involved. But it’s safe to say that despite his steadfast dedication to a quiet, peaceful life, the night isn’t going to go the way that anyone expects.
When you first start watching The Outfit, it’s easy to regard the production with a certain amount of suspicion. The Chicago accents that Deutch, Flynn, and O’Brien employ are patently ridiculous, purposeful or not. But we quickly buy into this self-contained universe of the menswear shop – the film’s only location, it provides a respite from the dangers of the outside world. The script is so nuanced and cleverly written that it’s difficult to predict which way the story will go.
Every time it seems like we have a handle on the situation, things change, as though the whole narrative is built on shifting sands. Characters appear to make decisions in real-time, perpetually trying to out-think and double-cross one another, creating a fascinating power dynamic that rearranges itself every few minutes. Flynn and Rylance are especially adept here, subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) attempting to guide the flow of conversation with soft words, helpful suggestions, and threats.
The Outfit relies entirely on the lead performance of Mark Rylance as the gentle tailor with hidden multitudes. The man is an enigma, and his even-tempered presence grounds the film whenever it seems in danger of becoming campy and over-the-top. Even though he is just a humble craftsman selling his wares, it is evident throughout the film that he controls the room, regardless of whether or not the other characters are aware of it. Rylance’s quiet but masterful acting is balanced perfectly with Flynn and O’Brien, who put in much broader performances as we would expect of classic Chicago mobster characters. Together they create a compelling ensemble cast that may rely heavily on stereotypes and mob movie tropes but is also more than willing to explore unexpected territory.