I thought I had my fill of single-setting thrillers when I happened to chance upon The Outfit, the latest from director Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) starring Mark Rylance aptly cast as Leonard, a skilled tailor — wait, he would correct you by saying he is actually a ‘cutter’ — from Saville Row.
Currently leading a solitary existence shaped by methodical routines in 1950s Chicago, Leonard has something of a friend in his secretary, Mable Shaun (Zoey Dutch), who doesn’t promise him a long-lasting company considering her lofty ambitions and all. Leonard is okay with that because he tells her he can handle himself quite well. It’s no wonder they get along, if not too well. I say Rylance is ‘aptly cast’ here because he has a face that suggests fascinating backstories. While not taciturn, Leonard prefers a lifestyle that doesn’t involve meddling in others’ business. And he would appreciate it if you return the favour.
The Outfit opens with a voiceover of Leonard that begins to make more sense only towards the film’s closing moments. But it also gives us a sense of how he looks at the world and everyone who inhabits it. He talks about a piece of clothing and how, on the surface, it appears made up of one or two pieces but is actually a combination of several, including various fabrics.
We understand this is how Leonard looks at every little situation. When he talks about “taking measure,” he also means analysing the individuals who visit him to get a suit made. So one assumes he knows much about psychology, a factor that he thinks is essential for a cloth designer aside from a person’s social standing. All kinds of people frequent his place, even the unsavoury ones, and The Outfit doesn’t take long to reveal that his joint is also the main stopover for message-passing hoodlums.
When two top-level thugs - in what seems like a nod to Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers (1946) — knock at Leonard’s door after one of them gets wounded by a gunshot, Leonard’s seemingly peaceful existence gets corrupted. Is this the first time something of this sort is happening to him? It’s a mystery that the film opts to unravel later, in addition to a cartload of twists that I didn’t see coming.
Rylance’s Leonard may seem, upon initial glance, quite similar to the character he played in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015) — a man who tends to his craft with utmost dedication - but is also perfectly aware of what’s happening around him: who is coming in, going out, what they are wearing, what they are hiding underneath their suit... everything. We can tell this is someone who had trained himself to observe even the minutest details for decades. It’s this detail that also piques our curiosity.
The most engaging single-setting films, I feel, are the ones that bring a fresh approach to the way they have been photographed, edited, and scored; and The Outfit scores across the board. Sometimes the scenes are edited to mirror Leonard’s craft, either in the way simultaneous events are cross-cut or the cyclical combination of two situations that occurred just minutes apart.
Save for the few instances of bonding between Leonard and Mabel — an aspect that makes a more prominent presence in the third act —The Outfit isn’t something that requires much emotional attachment on your part. The interest is in an ever-building sense of peril and Leonard’s ability to throw more surprises at us than we can imagine.
Though shot in colour, The Outfit emulates the mood of notable noir classics from the period it takes place in, especially in the accompaniment of a quiet, non-intrusive Jazz score or the warm overhead lighting. It recalled the films of British filmmaker Basil Dearden, which possessed as much elegance as they did menace.
If you, like me, got a big kick out of single-setting puzzles like Sleuth (1972), Rope (1948), Reservoir Dogs (1992), or even Breaking Bad, it is likely you’d find much to savour in the intricate plot and character manoeuvring in The Outfit. The film should also appeal to those who loved the early work of Christopher Nolan, before massive budgets diluted, to a certain degree, the storytelling finesse of the filmmaker who gave us discussion-worthy minimal thrillers such as Following (1998) and Memento (2000). If you miss that kind of experience as I do, then The Outfit should satiate your appetite.
Cast: Mark Rylance, Zoey Dutch, Johnny Flynn, Dylan O’Brien
Director: Graham Moore
Streaming on: Prime Video