Director Graham Moore on set. Courtesy Rob Youngson, Focus Features

In the film The Outfit, nothing is quite like audiences think it is—not the setting of the tailor shop, not the 1950s gangsters who are in and out of the shop, and not even the tailor himself.

“Every character in the film, like a suit of clothes, has layers and layers to them,” says Graham Moore, director and cowriter of The Outfit. “And over the course of the film, I think we try to pull back layer upon layer of each of these characters to sort of expose who they really are, and I really love the idea that the audience’s allegiance could start to shift a little bit.”

Everyone and everything is more complicated than they appear. In the tailor shop, designed by production designer Gemma Jackson, nothing is symmetrical: Something (or someone) is always lurking. The mobsters aren’t just mobsters, but dealing with their own insecurities. Secretary Mable, played by Zoey Deutch, is not the meek and mild young woman she appears to be. Out of everyone, she doesn’t need any protecting.

And the protagonist, a cutter named Leonard, played expertly by Mark Rylance, has a dark and layered past—not even flinching at the violence happening inside of his own shop. Leonard, a skilled cutter who was trained on London’s illustrious Savile Row, is underestimated by everyone who comes in contact with him. (As he tells us over and over, he is “not a tailor, [he] is a cutter—there is a difference.”)

It’s all part of the surprises in this gangster noir film that does its job to test the limits of assumption. Over a 48-hour period, the characters in The Outfit break out of every box.

The Outfit
R, 105 min. Wide release in theaters.

“We wanted this to be a kind of full-throated crime thriller with all the kind of fun twists and turns that the crime thrillers that I always grew up loving have,” Moore says. “But on another level, I think it’s a film about the difference between perception and reality.”

The Outfit is the Academy Award winner’s debut as a director. (Moore won in 2015 for writing The Imitation Game.) He and his cowriter Johnathan McClain were inspired by a real-life occurrence. In 1959, the FBI planted its first bug to record the mob—“the Outfit”—in a Gold Coast tailor shop.

“I think the Chicago gangland history is something [that] falls like the snow in Chicago,” Moore says. “It’s a part of my childhood. . . . It’s such a big part of—for better [or] for worse—what the city was known for, especially in that midcentury period.”

Chicago’s storied past as a place of mob life can be sometimes overshadowed in cinema, which focuses heavily on the east coast. But Moore, who grew up in Chicago, shines a light on the history that happened here and the people who made it happen the Chicago way.

“Something we talked about with The Outfit a lot was that it’s set in 1956, so The Godfather is basically happening offscreen in New York,” Moore says. “That’s happening over there; this is what’s going on in Chicago, where the criminal organizations are not as big yet: They’re not as powerful, they’re not as moneyed, they’re scrappier, they’re more local, and they’re sort of fighting for turf.”

In the film, there’s mention of Al Capone and a larger organization. And it draws on the lives of real figures, such as Violet La Fontaine, a French-speaking rival gang leader played by Nikki Amuka-Bird who Moore created based on Harlem’s Stephanie St. Clair.

As a whole, however, the film is not from the perspective of the gangsters, but from the perspective of Leonard, who we think is in over his head. And throughout the entire film, we don’t leave his shop.

“The idea of setting the entire film inside the tailor shop was something I got excited about very early on,” Moore says. “Because it felt like it kept the audience inside the psychological space of our protagonist. . . . He never leaves the shop. So we’re not going to either—we’re only going to go where he goes, we’re only going to see what he sees, we’re only going to hear what he hears.” 

And in this story of deception, Leonard’s work, his life, his own history—it all has meaning.

“It’s called The Outfit,” Moore explains. “It’s about people who make clothes. But what are clothes? They are these layers that we put up between ourselves and the outside world.”