“The Outfit” opens with a fixation on the quotidian operations of its protagonist, Leonard (Mark Rylance,) a British cutter — an occupation he is swift to mention is distinct from a tailor — operating a small suit shop in 1950s Chicago. Leonard’s primary character trait is his meticulous, almost monastic dedication to his work, something writer-director Graham Moore foregrounds in the opening montage; a largely prosaic, tiresome cutting together of shearing and snipping illuminated by candlelight that is somehow the most compelling part of the movie. It’s a sharp downturn thereafter.
Foiling Leonard’s practiced diligence both in his work and comportment are two mobsters who employ him as their family suit maker — the juvenile and unruly Richie (Dylan O’Brien) and his sinister cousin, Francis (Johnny Flynn). O’Brien’s status as a teen drama alumnus precedes him: There’s even a bit on season 11 of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” that pokes fun at his rather one-note resume. That’s why he is, at first glance, a confusing pick for a film that appears to take itself so seriously until, all of a sudden, it doesn’t. It is perhaps this tonal inconsistency that makes “The Outfit” the ideal entry point for O’Brien into the world of heavyweight cinema.
For a film already fleetingly preoccupied with crafting anything remotely interesting or unexpected, the choice to make “The Outfit” a chamber piece is a dubious one at best. Loosely moored in a volatile post-war mafia milieu, the chamber setting all but severs what little contextual ties it had to a world outside the dim claustrophobia of Leonard’s shop. This isolation is undoubtedly deliberate on the part of Moore because it begets a misty past for Rylance’s inscrutable Leonard. Unfortunately, it also precludes “The Outfit” from maintaining any semblance of depth.
Brief allusions to Britain’s post war economic decline within the film’s narrative are about as flimsy as Leonard’s assertion that “blue jeans” are what ran him out of business across the pond, prompting his mysterious arrival in Chicago. The setting ultimately comes across as a thinly veiled attempt to imbue the film with life and panache — or at least prolong its expiration date. Unfortunately, it still manages to sour.
The multitudinous twists and turns its narratively bloated, yet spiritually emaciated thriller plot takes are similarly nauseating. What begins as a cautious unfurling of narrative thread sloppily spirals out of control as Moore loses hold of the skein. Tension mounts swiftly, but not yet irresponsibly, toward the pin drop of the first act: a cavalier, “Breaking Bad”-esque admission of guilt wielded as a deterrent.
From there the film moves at light speed, tripping over itself in a mad dash toward a finish line that, to its credit, feels appropriately grandiose and thrilling. It’s enough to render the film watchable or even entertaining, but it’s not enough to save it from forgettability or make any of its trite dialogue more bearable.
Another element that cements “The Outfit” as a poorly executed dalliance into the “whodunnit” canon is the way it foists 21-century sensibilities onto a 1950s setting. Feminist aphorisms abound with Leonard’s young, ambitious secretary Mable (Zoey Deutch), a particularly frequent offender.
Leonard is a character who retains a number of internal contradictions. The way he clings to his espoused values of decorum, his dogmatic pursuit of perfection and desire for “solidity” clash with his true repressed moral character. “I put on these clothes to convince myself that I’m civilized,” he admits as the film’s tumult begins to shutter.
“The Outfit” is at its best when it interrogates moral ambiguities or, at the very least, provides a cheap thrill in the form of an undulating plot that induces bated breath. Regrettably, it is wont to lose sight of both.