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Review: 'The Outfit' is tailor-made to keep audiences guessing


The intimate new thriller "The Outfit" is set in a tailor shop, but the film is not about the outfits he makes. It's about an underworld group his gangster customers hope to join. Critic Bob Mondello says "The Outfit" is tailor-made to keep audiences guessing.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Chicago, 1956 - a rundown section of town that seems an unlikely spot for the masterly suit-making art of Leonard Burling.


MARK RYLANCE: (As Leonard) This isn't art. This is a craft.

MONDELLO: I stand corrected. But in that case, Burling is a superb craftsman. We watch him chalking and cutting fabric, stitching linings, turning bolts of tweed and silk into garments that give his customers broad shoulders, make them stand taller.


RYLANCE: (As Leonard) You cannot make something good until you understand your customer.

MONDELLO: Ah, but these particular customers who tuck guns in their waistbands and show up when sirens wail. Burling may keep his thoughts to himself, but he notices and he worries about their effect on his receptionist, Mable, played by Zoey Deutch, much to her annoyance.


ZOEY DEUTCH: (As Mable) I do not need you telling me who to date.

RYLANCE: (As Leonard) I didn't mean it like that.

DEUTCH: (As Mable) You meant it like, I saw you smiling at Richie Boyle earlier, and now I'm petrified that you're running with a bad batch.

RYLANCE: (As Leonard) Those men may be customers, but they are not gentlemen.

DEUTCH: (As Mable) Could have fooled me in those nice clothes you make for them.

RYLANCE: (As Leonard) If we only allowed angels to be customers, then we'd have no customers at all.

DEUTCH: (As Mable) Do we let all of our customers keep black boxes in back?

MONDELLO: Burling has made his peace with the lockbox. The Boyle crime family uses it for messages, and there's been increased traffic of late something about a rival LaFontaine family, African American gangsters running numbers and a mysterious recording. And then one night...


RYLANCE: (As Leonard) Please. I don't want any trouble.

MONDELLO: ...Richie Boyle bleeding profusely, and his father's enforcer clutching a tape.


JOHNNY FLYNN: (As Francis) There are a thousand blue boys out there hunting for this. And if they find it, I start shooting. You follow? Making matters worse, there are a thousand racket boys hunting for it too, and if they find it, they start shooting. You follow?

MONDELLO: Even in a gang war, Francis, the enforcer, and Richie are skeptical of each other. But it's Francis's job to keep Richie alive. And here's this guy, Burling, who's good with a needle and thread.


FLYNN: (As Francis) Sew him up.

RYLANCE: (As Leonard) What? I can't.

FLYNN: (As Francis) Sew him up.

MONDELLO: So all of this is set up for a game of gangster cat and mouse in which you're never quite sure who's the cat. Director and co-writer Graham Moore has constructed "The Outfit" as a pressure cooker who-done-what and tailored it specifically to suit its leading man, Mark Rylance, and his most threatening customer, Simon Russell Beale, both of whom are nuanced stage performers. The action is confined to the shop's interior, almost as if it were a theatre set, with the close confines helping build the pressure and focus your attention on, say, a snag in a plan or fraying nerves. Burling keeps saying he's not a tailor; tailors sew on buttons. Then he says what he actually is.


RYLANCE: (As Leonard) I studied for decades to be a cutter.

MONDELLO: Meaning he cuts the cloth and creates whole garments. But as the gangsters' plans come unraveled, you'll find yourself wondering how else he might use his shears. Actor Rylance wields them expertly, having prepared to play this role by studying with cutters on London's Savile Row. He learned his craft well enough that he made the suit he wears in the film, wears with studied cool, let's note, as his character's life and several others hang by a thread.


RYLANCE: (As Leonard) Fashionable things - they don't last. The things I make, like that suit of yours - it's timeless.

MONDELLO: You might also say that about Rylance's performance, which is a cut above in "The Outfit." I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF KARAVELO'S "MY GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.