Friday 15 April 2022

Snitches and stitches: "The Outfit"

You may be drawn to one of The Outfit's pitifully scattered showtimes by the prospect of an original(ish) live-action entertainment, something non-fantastical and targeted at grown-ups that also happens to feature one of the great actors of the age. Here is a film that could have been made in 1956 (the year it's set), the late 1990s or the present day; a rare 21st century studio release that seems to entirely predate the era of IP and the MCU. Graham Moore, whose script for 2014's The Imitation Game won a (somewhat generous) Oscar, has written and directed a clever, Roald Dahl-ish fable about an English tailor who crosses paths with the Chicago Mob. The tailor, Leonard, is played by Mark Rylance, and you can spot exactly why he's been drawn here from the film's opening sequence: a brisk spot of scene-setting in which we watch the protagonist open up his store, put the kettle on, sweep the floor for the day's activity, and start to ply his trade, cutting the pieces for an elegant slate-grey two-piece while the camera looks on in rapt fascination. (You settle in for 100 minutes of quiet craft.) We sporadically return to the progress of that suit, but the calm, measured atmosphere of that backroom invites interruption and intrusion, in this case from hoodlums leaving envelopes filled with cash and contraband in a dropbox fixed to the wall; that floor gets messy again when one goon (Dylan O'Brien) stumbles in, gutshot, from a mounting turf war. An ordered world, presided over by a man of manners, invaded by the rat-a-tat chaos of organised crime. How long before it all unravels?

If you can see why Rylance was drawn here, you can also see why Universal and their various subsidiaries agreed to pick this material up. The Outfit is a low-risk, low-cost, ultra-manageable proposition: it unfolds over three rooms (a foyer, a fitting room and a workshop), populated by a cast you can count on the fingers on two hands. (It looks very much like a Covid production, easily turned around and out without endangering anybody unduly.) It's also a useful showcase for Moore's talents - more so, I'd say, than a literally by-the-book adaptation like The Imitation Game offered. The plot is set up to twist and turn (there's a mole; who's the mole?); the actors are shuttled in and out of these rooms with some skill; and while we're clearly not (yet) in the realms of Pinter or Mamet, the dialogue yields the odd choice exchange. "I was in the War," Leonard tells O'Brien's chillier sidekick Francis (Johnny Flynn). "At your age?," comes the dismissive response. "The other War," Leonard shrugs. Is it all still a bit too neat, too manageable, a puzzle Moore can wrinkle and then iron out at will? Certainly, the film wouldn't suffer for a little extra threat, or at least some further directorial oomph; what it will tell industry onlookers is that Moore is nicely placed for a career making Dad Films or even Grandad Films. (Alexandre Desplat's score tends to shortsell the intrigue, tweely middle-of-the-road where something tougher and more propulsive might have helped.) The single location can't help but suggest the theatrical or televisual, although The Outfit mostly resembles a well-behaved B-movie, making up in narrative intelligence what it lacks in rude, subversive, grabby energy. 

Moore's shotmaking abilities remain unclear - veteran lenser Dick Pope has only so many places to set his camera down on these sets - yet he works well with his actors. Of course Rylance needs no excuse to burrow down into a character, but never has that burrowing been afforded such prominence on film, which represents a draw in itself. He makes Leonard a mystery in a waistcoat, which only assists the layered reveal of the plot. Doddering and querulous one scene, he's unexpectedly sprightly the next, possibly too sprightly to have served in WW1; he keeps us guessing, and the film relies on Rylance's ability to spin a yarn (cf. Leonard's much-upholstered story of how he was driven from London) and tailor it to the needs of whoever's listening. (The roles of protagonist and screenwriter haven't seemed this interchangeable since Christopher McQuarrie's script for The Usual Suspects.) Putting Rylance front and centre makes all these relationships more interesting than they would have been on the page. He's paternal around erstwhile Maze Runner O'Brien; he works up something edgier - deadlier - with Flynn, the latter channelling Richard Widmark as a sneering tough who deserves to have the smirk wiped from his face. The Outfit feels like a project from which the less experienced participants will have learnt a lot: Moore, for one, would have realised he was onto a good thing when sending on Simon Russell Beale around the halfway mark to do for him what M. Emmet Walsh or Charles Durning used to do for the Coens. It's unquestionably a B-movie in form and (to some degree) appearance, which may explain why the studio seems almost embarrassed to be releasing it into the wild. Yet at a moment when our A-movies have the disposability of the flimsiest Bs of yore, it's encouraging to encounter a B-movie fashioned with evident care and skill.

The Outfit is now playing in selected cinemas.

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