By Zach Hagadone
So many movie-goers are habituated to the scale of contemporary blockbusters that few filmmakers dare to tell stories featuring small casts, much less set them in a single interior location over the course of a single day. By the current standards of cinema, that’s practically a play.
Yet so much of the spectacular bloat layered on big-budget movies serves as insulation for the essential laziness of their construction. In The Outfit, released on March 18 and currently in theaters, everything from the writing, directing and acting to the set, sound and lighting is trimmed and proportioned to perfection.
That’s by design, starting with the profession of the lead character, a “cutter” of bespoke suits, whose shop turning out high-end outfits in 1950s Chicago becomes a place where various organized crime “outfits” become woven together — literally — in a labyrinth of competing power plays.
Too many reviewers have belabored the tailoring/cutting metaphors to continue with them here. Suffice to say, the critical response has been positive: 3.5 out of 4 stars from rogerebert.com, 84% on rottentomatoes.com, 7.2/10 on imdb.com.
Much of this praise is centered on the ever-stellar Mark Rylance, who plays Leonard, the shop-owner and “cutter,” who is not to be confused with a “tailor.” As he frequently points out with quiet British annoyance, the latter hems pants and sew on buttons — the former is a big-picture creator whose medium is fabric.
All the action in The Outfit takes place over a 24-hour period inside the two dim-lit rooms of Leonard’s shop, with mobsters coming and going to collect information and payoffs from a small box on the wall near his work table. There he labors with meditative expertise, though with a sideyed bead on what’s happening around him. From the outset, it’s clear that Leonard knows more than he’s willing to say, including about his own past.
Though neatly dressed and precise in his speech and manner, Rylance gives Leonard a shy, shambling, hang-dog aura, broken only by an understated paternal affection for his streetwise, ambitious shop clerk, Mable (Zoey Deutch).
The outside underworld comes crashing in when a pair of young hoods — one of them the son of the neighborhood godfather — collect an envelope from “The Outfit” containing secrets that could be the local crime family’s ticket into the big syndicates.
From there events seemingly spiral out of control as loyalties unravel, hidden motivations come to light and plans within plans within plans are put into motion.
The Outfit, directed by Graham Moore and written by Moore and Johnathan McClain, does much with little, crafting a simmering, immersive atmosphere that crackles with tension until it’s periodically blown apart by episodes of violence.
It’s also the kind of movie that simply doesn’t get made often anymore, having much in common with the pressure-cooker noir films of the 1950s that centered on characters’ motivations, rather than splashy set pieces, and kept audiences guessing well into the third act.
By the time the credits roll, The Outfit proves that bigger isn’t always better — better is just better.
In theaters now or available for rent on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu or Apple TV.
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