There was a strange amount of time I had spent away from the theater for a self-proclaimed film reviewer. Still, will anyone hold it against The Legionnaire if we did not take a look at a title like The Cursed? There was another horror film that came out in the last two weeks, but I cannot remember the title. Had I been alone, I might have gone and seen at least one of them, and probably written a scathing piece on one or both of them. Cameron has more of a stomach for such fare, but I am guessing that even he has his limit. Further, if you have read other reviews here of this ilk, you will already know my usual take on these kinds of movies. This past weekend did not offer much hope, either. There was yet another so-called scary motion picture premiering. Thankfully, it was not the only option. The other was The Outfit. The preview did not show a ton of promise, but like what happens so often with expectations, the reality turns out to be something else. Feel free to note the irony of this statement after talking about my assumptions as to all the horror films lately opening.
Winter, Chicago, a corner tailor shop in 1956, all basically summarize The Outfit. I say this because the entirety of the “action” takes place in this one location over the course of roughly two days. The premises are owned by its English proprietor Leonard Burling (Mark Rylance), his name adorning the window front. He does have an assistant, Mable Shaun (Zoey Deutch), and the two have a father-daughter-like relationship. They are a good balance. He is meticulous and dedicated to his work, whereas she dreams of bigger adventures to come. She shows the customers in, while he takes his time measuring, takes his time cutting, and takes his time sewing. By the way, did you know (at least according to the movie) that a tailor is somebody who simply attaches buttons. As Leonard likes to remind people, he is actually a cutter. The one thing he seemingly takes no notice of is the mailbox in the corner of his work room. Organized crime figures come to drop messages, and read those delivered by others, all without Leonard so much as turning a head from his carefully crafted suits. He got his start in this particular neighborhood with the patronage of local Irish petty crime lord Roy Boyle (Sir Simon Russell Beale). Since then, Leonard has attempted to mind his business while they conduct theirs. The two that he sees the most of is Roy’s son Richie (Dylan O’Brien) and the Boyle’s trusted henchman Francis (Johnny Flynn). They are the ones that come to retrieve messages. Also, Mable is romantically involved with Richie. During one of their pick-ups, Francis and Richie notice one of the envelopes marked with the symbol of “The Outfit,” which, unlike those made by Leonard, is actually a national conglomeration of organized crime, sort of like a United Nations of illegal activity as Francis puts it, started by Al Capone. If your enterprise gets noticed by this shadowy group, then that means you are moving up in the world. There is one problem: the message inside indicates that they have a rat inside the Boyle family feeding information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Francis and Richie initially suspect that it is somebody in-league with the rival LaFontaines. What makes them even more nervous is when an early version of a cassette tape, presumably with recordings of their illegal trades, turns up the next day in the mailbox in another envelope marked with the Outfit’s symbol. When Francis and Richie attempt to confront the LaFontaine’s about the business, the meeting apparently (this part is not shown) gets violent and Richie is shot. With enemy gangs and police on their tail, the two take refuge in Leonard’s shop. Leonard protests, citing how he had not mettled with their affairs, but Francis points a gun at the cutter and insists that he stitch up Richie’s wound. Francis then leaves to try to find some place where he can play the tape. While away, Leonard and Richie get to talking, and Leonard suggests that he is the rat, though Richie does not take him seriously. In the course of their conversation, Richie’s suspicions then shift to Francis, and the crime heir makes himself believe that the former ally is up to no good. When Francis returns, their brief exchange leads to Richie being shot in the neck, and killed. Turning the gun on Leonard, Francis demands that the proprietor help cover up the incident when Roy arrives. Leonard must once more walk a fine line between lies and truth, which becomes trickier when Roy notices his sons coat in the workshop, but no Richie to be found. To stave off disaster, particularly when Francis brings Mable to the store and attempts to pin Richie’s murder on her, Leonard sends the Roy into an ambush with the LaFontaines, with Francis staying behind. Not long thereafter, the rival leader, Violet LaFontaine (Nikki Amuka-Bird), shows up with two burly men wanting the tape, and with a large amount of money to get it. The money had been arranged by Mable, and they shoot Francis and leave. In the aftermath, Leonard admits to Mable that he knew all along that it had been her planting recording devices in the shop as part of her plan to get out of the city, and that he had been helping. He then gladly gives her the money, and they both make their plans to depart separately. Leonard decides to burn his business down, but as the flames grow higher, Francis revives and shoots Leonard in the arm. This is when we learn, as Leonard rolls up his sleeves revealing a number of disturbing tattoos, that he had a different life before he became a suit maker. With Francis finished off by Leonard’s giant scissors, the cutter finally takes his leave, as do we.
It is the revelation at the conclusion of The Outfit that shall lead me into my Catholic analysis. As we learn more about Leonard’s character, it slowly comes to light how an English cutter of such evident refinement and skill came to be in the relative backwater of Chicago, Illinois. At first, he is cagey, but slowly pieces of the story emerge. He had apprenticed in the best London suit shops, started a family, and opened his own business. Unfortunately, his wife and child died in a fire that destroyed not only them, but his livelihood. He then came to the United States with only his scissors. Yet, as we learn at the end, the fire is the result of his previous occupation as a criminal of not inconsiderable violence, judging by the tattoos, catching up with him. Everyone has their limit, and when he was asked to do something so vile for even someone like himself, he decided to start over somewhere else. Starting over is a theme in the film, and a great one for Catholics to remember during this time of Lent. In this month and change, we are called upon to give up things. It is not meant to be solely an exercise in discipline, but rather a purgation of aspects of our lives that encumber our relationship with God, who is perfection. Our faith lives are all about journeying towards that perfection. The film touches precisely on this subject. As the blaze in Leonard’s store grows, in a voice over he explains how perfection is a necessary goal because it is unattainable. In Faith terms, this means that (though there has been an exception or two) we are not going to get into Heaven while we are still in this life. I have heard many Catholic thinkers talk about how great it would be if we could all strive for the perfection of Heaven. Greatness is key here because, again according to the movie, if you do not aim for perfection you will never do anything great. And yet you will fail. This last bit is something with which you must reconcile yourself. To me, this perfectly sums up Lent. Even if you feel like you have not followed any of your promises, get back up, and start over.
The Outfit is a bit of a slow-mover, but it is worth the patience. A few times I felt the film testing my patience, but the tension was enough to keep me interested. I also like English suits. I was particularly into Leonard’s character. The care that he showed for Mable, and his desire to keep out of the dirty business around him, made him sympathetic. What clinches it is his soliloquy at the end about perfection. That resonated with this Catholic, and why, if you can take a little blood, I give this one a cautious recommendation.