During the first moments of The Outfit, we see the protagonist (Mark Rylance) cutting fabric for a man’s suit while his voiceover narration starts in on the 228 steps it takes to make the jacket and trousers. We don’t even need to hear his words to see that we’re in the presence of a very careful man who measures everything twice. Nevertheless, he goes on to tell us that for all his skill, he can’t make anything good unless he measures the person he’s making the suit for: “Who does the customer want to be? And who is he underneath?” This unassuming thriller quite fits the lead actor, who has won an Oscar but has never had a great showcase for his talents until now.
Our man is a Londoner with his own tailor shop in Chicago in 1956. The name on his shop window is “L. Burling,” though his customers simply call him “English.” Many of those customers are men with guns who drop off packets into a locked box in his workroom. English insists he doesn’t want to know what’s in them, but that stops being an option when Richie Boyle (Dylan O’Brien), the son of the local mob boss (Simon McBurney), is brought into his shop late one night with a bullet in his side. The Irish are fighting a war against a rival gang, and Richie’s fellow mobster Francis (Johnny Flynn) has found that someone inside their organization is talking to the FBI. English’s formidable powers of concentration, usually deployed to make suits in the Savile Row tradition, now turn to keeping him alive through this night.
The cast contains a grand total of seven actors, all of whom are British except for O’Brien and Zoey Deutch as the suit man’s secretary who happens to be sleeping with Richie. But for the burst of violence at the end, this could easily be a stage play, as everything takes place in that shop. Directing his first film, Graham Moore (an Oscar-nominated writer on The Imitation Game) drops some tasty hard-boiled lines — when our man protests that he can’t lie to people, Francis says, “You know how to say something and mean something else. You’re English.” The protagonist quickly comes to seem like more than a humble tradesman when he subtly plays Francis against Richie to keep either of them from killing him. Moore perhaps falls too much in love with his plot twists at the end, but the reveal about the purpose of the voiceover narration is pretty nifty.
There’s no fat on this cast. I was so unimpressed by O’Brien in the Maze Runner films, but he slips readily into the métier of a Chicago Irish gangster. Flynn fits his role less well, but he still gives off the vibe of someone who’d kill everyone in the shop without a second thought. You’d never guess he was the same guy who played Mr. Knightley in Emma. McBurney grabs a showpiece scene in the middle, when he places his gun on English’s workbench and rhapsodizes about the craftsmanship that went into it before delivering a venomous stinger showing that he knows English is hiding something from him.
No one steals the spotlight from Rylance, however, as he portrays a man who maneuvers delicately to avoid being shot by all the thugs around him. He does some terrific work, too, when English cracks under the threat of torture and reveals why he really left the U.K. This past decade has seen this actor come to mirror Britain’s current image of itself: dowdy and no longer young but brave, wise, and decent to the core. The Outfit cuts against that beautifully as a man who depends on his craft (what he does is not art, he insists) to save him from the worst jams he finds himself in.
Starring Mark Rylance and Zoey Deutch. Directed by Graham Moore. Written by Graham Moore and Johnathan McClain. Rated R.