“Graham Moore’s Unified and Inventive The Outfit” by Ken Hall

The intricately plotted tale of betrayals, informants, and outbreaks of violence is presented in a format familiar to classical theatre but not as common in contemporary filmmaking. The scope of the onscreen narrative is restricted to the tailor shop, the time span is very limited, and the action of the film, while complex, focuses on the importance of some elusive evidence of a ‘rat’ in the Boyle gang.”

The title of the very engaging The Outfit, directed by Graham Moore (writer, The Imitation Game) from a screenplay by Johnathan McClain and Graham Moore, carries a double meaning: an outfit of clothing and The Outfit, the nickname of the Chicago Mob built by Al Capone and continued by his gangster heirs after his death. Beginning with a voice-over about the method of creating an outfit of clothing, by Mr. Leonard Burling (Mark Rylance), English owner of a bespoke tailor shop in Chicago, the film presents a compact tale of Leonard’s attempt to survive his involvement with a ruthless gang led by Roy Boyle, who aspires to membership in the Outfit organization. The intricately plotted tale of betrayals, informants, and outbreaks of violence is presented in a format familiar to classical theatre but not as common in contemporary filmmaking. The scope of the onscreen narrative is restricted to the tailor shop, the time span is very limited, and the action of the film, while complex, focuses on the importance of some elusive evidence of a “rat” in the Boyle gang. This chamber drama thus respects the “three unities” associated, somewhat inaccurately, with Aristotle, and often practiced in classical French drama by authors like Pierre Corneille.

The performances by the small cast are all excellent. Rylance (AA 2015, Bridge of Spies) as the tailor (or “cutter,” as he specifies, distinguishing himself from a common tailor) is especially powerful, with strong assists from Zoey Deutch as Mable, his secretary and assistant, and distinguished stage actor Simon Russell Beale as Roy Boyle, the gangster boss. Dylan O’Brien as Richie and Johnny Flynn as Francis also perform well, but their roles are not written with the complexity given the roles for the other lead actors in the film. The minimalist, chamber-music score by celebrated composer Alexandre Desplat (AA 2017, The Shape of Water) is perfectly fitted to the narrative, with the piano line not only reinforcing the repetitive actions by Leonard in making and repairing clothes but highlighting the repeated intrusions and threats to his shop.

Unlike many gangster-themed films, The Outfit does not focus chiefly on the gangsters, their families, and their rivals. The central emphasis here falls on Leonard and Mable, two people not members of the gang but affected nevertheless by its violence, exploitation, and treachery. The voice-over narration by Leonard lends a special element to the complexity of the cinematic structure by foregrounding the method of making a garment, a process which could be likened to the construction of a narrative. The result should reward multiple viewings.

Focus Features will release THE OUTFIT in theaters on March 18, 2022.

Ken Hall (Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1986; MA, University of NC-Chapel Hill, 1978) is professor emeritus of Spanish at ETSU, where he had taught since 1999. His publications include Professionals in Western Film and Fiction (McFarland, 2019), John Woo: The Films (McFarland, [1999] 2012), John Woo’s The Killer (Hong Kong University Press, 2009), Stonewall Jackson and Religious Faith in Military Command (McFarland, 2005) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante and the Cinema (Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 1989). His essay, “Femme Fatale Assassins and the Time Clock” was published on Retreats from Oblivion on Nov. 17, 2021.

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