His gestures are economical and spare. Oscar winner Mark Rylance has his own particular interpretation of “underplaying,” turning a role into a life being lived in the moment on the screen.
His melodious line readings, taking care with every syllable, underscoring the idea that he’s pulling the words out of the situation and real life experiences, build on the reality his posture and physical presence are creating.
In “The Outfit,” playing a tailor that dresses the Chicago mob, his internalized, buttoned-down approach has a fine showcase. He is modest, meek, even as he’s correcting any “made man” who refers to the profession of the guy they all call “English” as “tailor.”
“I’m a cutter,” he gently explains. He measures men, draws patterns on paper and cuts the “four different fabrics” that make up a man’s suit. “I used to cut on ‘The Row,'” as if the savvier gangsters haven’t figured out what we did in the first moments of his voice-over narration about his work. He got his start on London’s famed Saville Row.
The directing debut of “Imitation Game” screenwriter Graham Moore has its hero share a profession with “The Tailor of Panama.” And like that film’s star, Geoffrey Rush, Rylance’s attention to the littlest details and measured, considered way with every word summons up memories of the actor both of these Oscar winners pay tribute to with their most careful work.
Like Rush, Rylance is a new Alec Guinness, letting characters put their imprint on him rather than the other way around.
Moore’s film. which he co-wrote, parks our “cutter” in a single location — his Chicago shop — on a single night. It’s December, 1956. And those many visits by overdressed guys with bespoke jackets cut to help conceal the shoulder holster they wear underneath, backroom “drops” left in a deposit slot, have been noticed by English’s young clerk, Mabel (Zoey Deutch).
In turn, Richie (Dylan O’Brien), the young heir to an established gang, has noticed Mabel. English takes the time to pass on an oblique warning — “These men may be customers, but they’re not gentlemen.” Is she hearing it?
Because this snowy night, Richie and his lieutenant, Francis (Johnny Flynn) visit twice. The second time, “the kid” has been shot, with “a marble” in his stomach, Francis says. And their laying low in this unassuming, dignified business presents the English cutter with a multi-layered dilemma.
There’s the matter of the man bleeding out in his shop. The gangsters hold one of the first audio cassettes ever manufactured, taped vidence of a “rat” in the ranks of their mob. The wounded man doesn’t trust his “trusted lieutenant,” and maybe Francis resents “the kid,” just a little.
Events conspire to murderously implicate and entrap our patient, mild-mannered “cutter” with the gang that’s been using his shop as a drop, forcing him to reason with, trick and manipulate his way out of a fix — at gunpoint.
The pun of the film’s isn’t the only “cute” touch in this screenplay, co-written by actor-turned-screenwriter Johnathan McLain. The mob threats have a “Guys and Dolls” gangland quality.
“Back up, English. This ain’t your purview.“
The dimly-lit shop closes in around characters as twists are introduced, nerve-wracking confrontations ensue and our tailor/cutter tries out approaches to wriggle out of this even as he’s forced to “sew” the injured man’s wounds.
But the third act’s over-the-top turns somewhat undercut the spell Rylance and this myopic, not-quite-paranoid story cast. We learn too much about English, when merely implying the pieces of his mysterious past would have been more effective.
English’s narration, the way he “measures” his customers, should be the filmmakers’ guiding ethos.
“Who is he underneath? Does he pine for grander things? You cannot make something good until you understand who you’re making it for.”
Rather than letting Rylance let us “see” how he sees these men, the script opts to overexplain and spoon-feed us logical “reasons” for this or that.
We notice things, like if Richie’s got “a marble” in him, why is the tailor sewing up an entry and an exit wound? Why is Richie able to get on his feet right after the last stitch is tied off?
And didn’t RCA introduce that original oversized-version of the cassette in 1958?
The former child-star Deutch holds her own with Rylance, no mean feat. And there’s solid if not crackling, stand-out work from the generally less-known supporting players.
But it’s the mesmerizing Rylance and the film’s theatrical single-set stage “mystery” that sell “The Outfit,” a “cutter” in his element, showing not just what he makes, but what he’s made of in this minimalist mob tale built around a mild-mannered man who takes the measure of everyone he meets.
Rating: R for some bloody violence, and language throughout
Cast: Mark Rylance, Zoey Deutch, Dylan O’Brien, Johnny Flynn, Niki Amuka-Byrd and Simon Russell Beale.
Credits: Directed by Graham Moore, scripted by Johnathan McClain and Graham Moore A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:45