Mark Rylance dazzles in a rare leading role in the suspense thriller The Outfit

click to enlarge Mark Rylance needs to be the lead in more movies.
Mark Rylance needs to be the lead in more movies.

For a few minutes there, I was about to make a huge mistake in contemplating Mark Rylance's performance in The Outfit: I was about to compare him to another actor. It was, I believe, quite a complimentary comparison, in that the East End lilt Rylance adopts for The Outfit made me think of Michael Caine, and the coiled intelligence that Caine keeps behind his eyes. But eventually it occurred to me that Rylance is truly an original, an actor who vanishes inside characters so effectively that he had been working steadily for 30 years before he was "discovered" in his Oscar-winning Bridge of Spies performance. Even the otherwise insufferable Don't Look Up couldn't dim Rylance's ability to bring something utterly singular to the screen.

What American audiences generally hadn't had a chance to see, however, is what Rylance could bring to the table when, rather than being part of the supporting cast, he has to carry a film. That's the opportunity The Outfit gives him, and it makes me wish he had many more such opportunities. This snappy little chamber-piece of a suspense drama has plenty to offer all around, but gets its biggest kick from watching Rylance build complexity of character over its full running time.

In a story set in 1956 Chicago, Rylance plays Leonard Burling, a post-World War II British immigrant who runs a shop making fine bespoke suits for men. Through Burling's friendship with local crime boss Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale), the shop has also become a drop point for cash to Boyle's operation — and possibly for communication from a secretive "underworld United Nations" called The Outfit. When Boyle's son Richie (Dylan O'Brien) is wounded in a shootout with a rival gang, Boyle's chief lieutenant Francis (Johnny Flynn) brings Richie to Burling's shop to lay low, launching a tense night of suspicion and violence surrounding the possibility that an informant in Boyle's operation tipped off the rival.

Co-writer/director Graham Moore — the Oscar-winning The Imitation Game screenwriter, making his feature directing debut — sets virtually the entire film within the confines of Burling's shop with only a handful of speaking parts, giving it the feel of a stage adaptation (which it is not). Moore takes full advantage of the idea that Burling's entire world consists of his shop, and allows the confines of the small rooms to build the physical and intellectual confrontations between the characters, while Alexandre Desplat's prowling score punctuates the sense of consequence at all the right moments.

The Outfit is also a pretty efficient piece of writing for something that ultimately takes the twists and turns of a double-/triple-/quadruple-crossing heist thriller. Moore and co-writer Johnathan McClain need to establish multiple relationships — the conflict between Richie and Francis; Burling's paternal affection for his secretary, Mable (Zoey Deutch); the respect Boyle has for Burling — in a fairly tight span of time, and they do so remarkably well. Though the performances are spare, the characters all register as distinct individuals, right down to Boyle's mountainous bodyguard who laments that he's "not good at riddles."

Mostly, however, this is a marvelous showcase for everything that makes Mark Rylance such a tremendous actor. Though Moore hints at a tragic backstory for Burling — with nightmare flashbacks to a fire, for example — Rylance builds the character through his reactions to the threatening situations that emerge over the course of that one fateful evening. While the structure might have led to Burling feeling more like a man of reaction than a man of action, every eye movement and every improvised excuse by Burling makes it clear that the action is going on in his head as he figures out how to keep himself (and Mable) alive. It's screen acting at its finest: restrained, magnetic and filled with an interior life that only gradually bubbles to the surface.

At times, The Outfit's various revelations veer into refrigerator-logic territory that doesn't entirely hold up upon reflection (though one late character appearance brilliantly subverts expectations). But despite the gangster backdrop and the effective crafting of moments where lives hang in the balance, this isn't primarily a genre exercise. It's a character piece — and when Mark Rylance is playing that character, you realize that you're dealing with someone who deserves to have other actors compared to him. ♦

Three And a Half StarsTHE OUTFIT
Directed by Graham Moore
Starring Mark Rylance, Zoey Deutch, Johnny Flynn
Rated R

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