The gangsters in “The Outfit” have plenty of tough moves, but none of these guys hold the screen like Mark Rylance when he just stands or stares — or sews. His character, Leonard, is a bespoke tailor who once worked on Savile Row and now practices his trade in an unassuming shop in Chicago. There, he snips and stitches with a bowed head and delicate, precisely articulated movements that express the beauty and grace of Rylance’s art.
Sometimes, all you need in a movie is a great actor — well, almost all. Certainly Rylance’s presence enriches “The Outfit,” a moderately amusing gangster flick that doesn’t make a great deal of sense. It’s a nostalgia-infused genre exercise set in 1956 that centers on Leonard, who, having left London after the war, now makes suits for a clientele that includes underworld types, some of whom use his shop for business. Day after day, he works in his somber, claustrophobic store while dodgy types parade in and out, dropping envelopes in a locked box. Like the box, Leonard is a mystery that the movie teases out one hint at a time.
Leonard takes longer to open, although the box’s contents are central to the puzzle that also involves a clandestine recording, a secret romance, rampaging rival crews and the larger mysterious criminal enterprise that gives the movie its title. There’s also Leonard’s employee, Mabel (Zoey Deutch), one of two women in the mix; Nikki Amuka-Bird also pops in as a glamorous villain. For the most part, Mabel is around to greet the customers and brighten up the store’s gloomy interior: She smiles at one villain (Dylan O’Brien), gives the cold shoulder to another (Johnny Flynn) and so on.
The director Graham Moore and his screenwriting partner, Johnathan McClain, move their limited pieces around, spill the requisite blood and modestly complicate the proceedings. The story is self-aware, chatty and thin; it plays out as an extended cat-and-mouse, though who’s who in this particular duet shifts over time, if not all that surprisingly. Mostly, the movie seems like it was concocted by a couple of cinephiles who wanted to play with genre for genre’s sake. And why not? That’s as fine a reason as any to dust off some fedoras and hire actors of varying abilities for some retro American gangster cosplay on a British soundstage.
“The Outfit” basically consists of characters moving in, out and through the store’s two main rooms, spatial limitations that can feel stagy and be tricky to manage. This is Moore’s feature directing debut (he wrote “The Imitation Game”) but, working with the director of photography Dick Pope, he handles the space thoughtfully. With a muted palette, shifts in the depth of field and complementary staging and camera moves, Moore and Pope map the store’s (and story’s) geography from different vantage points. And, in sync with Rylance’s finely calibrated performance, they insure Leonard remains the visual axis.
Rylance put on a fright wig to play William Kunstler in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and wore Mr. Ed-size choppers for his role as the eccentric zillionaire in “Don’t Look Up.” But he’s a master of restraint and he doesn’t need accessories to hold you as he proved with his mesmerizing turn in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama “Bridge of Spies.” Rylance’s role here isn’t as rich, but one of the attractions of “The Outfit” is that it allows him to etch his character in pockets of filigreed solitude. Leonard’s focused yet effortless meticulousness when he works — how his hands smooth the fabric and control his enormous shears — define this man more than any line of dialogue. You also get to see Rylance engaging with a worthy foil.
That would be Simon Russell Beale, who plays Roy, a gangland boss. Roy enters about midway through the movie. By then, bullets have been fired and blood has splashed across the floor, developments that are nowhere as ominous or tense as watching Leonard and Roy have a polite little talk in the back. Beale has the more overtly showy role. But like Rylance, he builds his characters through meticulously orchestrated moderation — vocal and physical — that faint smile by smile, hushed word by word, shifts the very particles in the air. Together, Rylance and Beale create a little world and a movie within a movie that’s worth watching.
Rated R for gun violence and language. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. In theaters.