Leonard, or English as almost everyone calls the Savile Row-trained draper, clearly loves his job, as does the storyteller: writer-director Graham Moore, who makes his debut behind the camera after winning an Oscar for his screenplay in 2014′s “The Imitation Game”. As English describes the meticulous nature of his craft, in his scone-dry voiceover, cinematographer Dick Pope (“Supernova”) watches over his shoulder, so to speak, transforming the meticulousness of costume-making into a sort of art form, despite the erasure of the protagonist’s self-assessment. “The Outfit” unfolds with the same meticulousness. Set in 1956, it’s a cleverly twisty crime story constructed of many folds and unseen threads, but fits Rylance like tailor-made clothes. (Fun fact: The actor, who delved into sewing techniques in preparation for the role, made the costume he wears in the film.)
As English works, stopping occasionally to chat with his saleswoman, Mabel (Zoey Deutch), we watch. This rhythm is interrupted by the comings and goings of several unidentified men, periodically depositing packages in a mysterious safe attached to the back wall of the shop, and at other times showing up to retrieve them. Slowly we glean that English has consented to allow Chicago mobster Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale) to use his shop for communications involving everything they do – which, by implication, n is not pretty.
The ugliness is confirmed when Boyle’s son, Richie (Dylan O’Brien), shows up late one night. Staggering on the arm of another moron named Francis (Johnny Flynn), Richie was shot: he has a marble in his stomach, in their foul language, a stark contrast to the more refined, timid, even oblique way of speaking of English. We’re talking about a rat – not the rodent, but a snitch – an incriminating audio tape, the FBI and a rival gang. English, despite his protests, is enlisted to stitch up Richie. Suddenly, and with the narrative impact of a tectonic shift, the balance of the film shifts towards its star. “The Outfit” is Rylance’s movie from now on.
The story itself, a bloody, suspenseful game of cat and mouse – and, I guess, a rat, though who’s playing with who is often uncertain – is well constructed, even pleasingly Hitchcockian at times, though shallower, and sometimes corseted by the stagnation of its essentially one-piece frame. But it’s a great showcase for his star and his talents. Rylance’s character begins as a wallflower, but slowly, and with the inexorable persistence of English ivy, takes over the film, drawing our attention to him as the bloody stakes rise.
The supporting cast is excellent and includes Nigerian-born, London-educated Nikki Amuka-Bird, who briefly – but only briefly – steals the show, with a third-act entrance as a stylish gangster rival of Boyle, more brutal than Beale. Through the film’s violent, satisfying, and surprising conclusion, Rylance took over the focus, in a performance that perfectly suits his greatest and most subtle gift – the ability to hide something under a veneer of impeccability and reserve: a sense of boldness, even dangerous unpredictability.
R In neighborhood theatres. Contains bloody violence, foul language and smoking. 105 minutes.