A film that blends the physical intimacy of the stage with the emotional intimacy of the screen.
One of the most long running debates among critics, audiences, actors, directors, producers and writers has always been the question over which is more superior- stage or film. It’s a back and forth that inspires spirited discussions regarding merit and culture, among other factors. As long as the two exist, the argument over which one is the premier form of storytelling shows no sign of stopping, regardless of the heights both mediums manage to achieve. The pros of both are obvious. Theater offers more of a self-contained nature when it comes to its plays, allowing for an insight into characters that remains priceless.
By contrast, the limits of film know no bounds when it comes to creating different worlds and being absorbed by them in ways that both inspire and provoke. The two have been able to co-exist at the same time on screen before, mainly through filmed stage performances and plays that end up being adapted for the screen. But until the release of the new thriller The Outfit, so rarely have the two worlds been this compellingly melded together to make one of the most exciting films of the year.
Mark Rylance takes on leading duties as Leonard, a mild-mannered British cutter (not a tailor, as he’s quick to point out) of hand-crafted suits who runs a shop in 1950s Chicago. With his loyal assistant Mabel (Zoey Deutch), Leonard has carved out a quiet, peaceful existence for himself. The only caveat to his setup is the fact that his shop is owned by a large mafia family headed by Roy (Simon Russell Beale) and his son Ritchie(Dylan O’Brien). The gang uses the back of the shop as a drop-off and meeting place of sorts for actions that Leonard is happy to have no part of. On one night, however, a series of events will force Leonard to acknowledge the goings-on in his shop in a way he hadn’t before.
When I mentioned that The Outfit was like both a film and a play, I meant it not as a complementary observation, but as one of the key ingredients for its success. Just like a stage play, there’s a great back and forth banter coming from each character, and the use of the physical space is so brilliantly utilized. No more than a small handful of people are ever in a scene together, which means that the film gives audiences the luxury of getting to know everyone on the screen. From Mabel’s future plans to Ritchie’s relationship with his father, to the weight of every double-cross the nature of The Outfit’s script ensures we get to know the people on the screen.
On the flip side of the coin, The Outfit is the kind of cinematic experience a lover of films craves in the age of overindulgence in spectacle. The cinematography is so rich, it gives the whole effort a real literary quality that is greatly aided by Rylance’s narration. The score manages the right level of subtle mystery and the production design can already proclaim the title of one of the year’s best. All of these features conspire to make The Outfit feel cinematic and work in great harmony with a screenplay that offers up plenty of twists as well as a comment on the underground societal politics of the day.
As impressive as the mechanics of the film are, they all come far behind The Outfit’s central character. In more ways than one, Leonard represents the American dream at a time when such a concept was at its most potent. Having escaped London following a personal tragedy as a result of WWII, Leonard is shown as something of a relic from a bygone era, a man who has designed his life so that he doesn’t have to deal with certain elements of the past or the present. Instead, it’s the art of suit-making that remains his life and his world. In essence, he’s defined so much by his craft, it’s almost as if he doesn’t exist without it. For all the turns and surprises, The Outfit is about a haunted man who works as hard as possible to keep the ghosts of his past at bay to the point that he’s as self-contained as the film itself.
Every member of the ensemble cast of The Outfit gives everything the script and its world ask of them, playing up both the theatricality and intensity of the story with the right kind of precision. This is especially true when it comes to Deutch, who reveals the different levels and shades to her character perfectly. However, the film rests on Rylance’s performance, and the Oscar winner gives another awards caliber turn here. Even though it’s the lead, Leonard remains the role with the least amount of flash in the film. But Rylance nonetheless proves mesmerizing as he plays his character with a soulful weariness that quickly makes him the movie’s most intriguing figure.
From the beginning of the month, we’ve had to contend with a slew of film Twitter enthusiasts proclaiming that The Batman is the first true Oscar contender of 2022. Having not seen it, I can’t speak to that movie’s merits or faults, whatever they may be. I will however take a cue from my overexcited film Twitter brethren and bestow the title of the first 2022 Oscar contender to The Outfit. It saddens me that the film is a March release since so much of it feels ripe for the kind of acclaim and accolades the current crop of Oscar nominees are sweeping up. The whole affair is a literate, period character drama that also works as a plot-driven crime tale with the ability to grip virtually any audience. As a member who votes on a couple of awards ballots every year, I’m going to plead my best case to ensure that The Outfit is not forgotten by my fellow voting members come December. To put it mildly, this is a film that deserves to be remembered.