The Outfit is a glossy but empty prestige crime drama that mistakes convolution for compelling plotting.
Early in The Outfit, our central protagonist, a mild-mannered tailor — pardon me, cutter — named Leonard (Mark Rylance) utters a choice bit of wisdom: “You can’t make something good until you understand who you’re making it for.” If only director Graham Moore and co-writer Johnathan McClain had taken such advice to heart, as it is near impossible to determine who this sedate bit of mafioso maneuvering is supposed to appeal to. Set entirely in a single location and staged with all the gusto of an off-Broadway tech rehearsal, The Outfit delivers one tired plot twist after another in a vain effort to fool audience members into thinking that what they are watching is somehow cleverly constructed instead of merely threadbare. Episodes of Columbo have offered more surprises than what is on display here, and with twice the bravado.
Chicago, 1956. The aforementioned Leonard runs a small haberdashery that caters to wealthy clients, the majority of whom are involved with the mafia and who use the shop’s backroom as a drop-off point for various bribes and extortion payments. Leonard has always looked the other way and kept to himself, but all of that is about to change when, on a particularly eventful December night, the son of the biggest mob boss in the city is brought into the shop, a marble in his gut. (For all of you softies, that means “bullet.”) The son in question, Robbie (Dylan O’Brien), is one of those know-it-alls with Daddy issues who is jealous of his father’s right-hand man, Francis (Johnny Flynn), whom he treats more like a son than his own son, because, of course, he has to in these types of stories. Old rivalries inevitably lead to events spiraling out of control, with Leonard caught in the middle, desperately fighting for his life. Yet Leonard might not be quite as naïve as he seems, as double-crosses pile into triple-crosses into quadruple-crosses, and so on and so on.
There’s something to be said for the gambit of a single-location thriller: it innately heightens tension, organically creates a sense of claustrophobia, and allows for a filmmaker to truly show off their chops. Moore, unfortunately, is not that filmmaker. A celebrated author and screenwriter who won an Oscar for his adaptation of The Imitation Game, Moore makes his directorial debut with The Outfit and steadfastly exhibits competency and… well, not much else. A good chunk of the movie is simply point-and-shoot, its flat digital photography completely at odds with the both the time period and the story at hand, while the score by Alexandre Desplat is very Desplat-y in a Dollar General bargain bin kind of way. Had an ounce of energy been committed to the proceedings, a few moments of fun might’ve slipped through, but even that turns out to be a tall order for a film where the height of its shrewdness begins and ends with its title. Rylance once again relies on the “quiet dignity” schtick that he’s been mining for gold ever since his Oscar win for Bridge of Spies seven years ago, while the always reliable Zoey Deutch pops up as Leonard’s assistant, but is once again given absolutely nothing to do, continuing her streak of appearing in films that squander her natural charms and talent. (Change.org to get her a new agent, maybe?) In fairness, she and O’Brien both opt for outsized New Yaawk accents that might make some sense if they were consistent or if, you know, the film was actually set in New York City. Even Flynn, a master of charisma in films like Emma. and Beast, loses his spark in the dank Outfit, going through the requisite motions and little else. Then again, inspiration is hard to find in a film that uses the word “cutter” as foreshadowing and believes it a sophisticated choice. It’s reflects a dubious lack of subtlety on the page, and that’s to say nothing of Moore’s seeming lack of concern with his role as filmmaker and not only writer. To channel the level of wit on display here, let’s just say: this is one Outfit that belongs in a thrift shop. You can have that one for free, Moore.