The “thriller” genre encompasses a broad range of movies, as exemplified by a pair of new releases this weekend. One, The Outfit, is about a genteel figure pulled into a carefully crafted cat-and-mouse story full of clever reveals and reversals. The other, X, is a sex-and-blood-drenched homage to 1970s horror flicks, full of jump scares and gross-out moments. Which is to say that each offers thrills, but of wildly varying sorts.
The Outfit is the directorial debut of Graham Moore, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Imitation Game. That plaudit earned Moore the right to make a movie that feels like it’s been sitting at the bottom of his desk drawer for years. I mean that in a good way—it’s intricately plotted, not very marketable, and, being set almost entirely in one room, perfect for a low-budget production.
The always compelling Mark Rylance, who used his soft-spoken intensity to great comic effect in Don’t Look Up, carries the show as Leonard, a British tailor (“cutter,” he corrects you) working in 1950s Chicago. He’s obsessively devoted to his craft, which he hopes to pass along to his young assistant Mable (Zoey Deutch). He also keeps a lockbox in the back of his shop, where unsavory-seeming characters in trench coats and fedoras sometimes deposit or retrieve envelopes. It’s a bespoke drop for mob boss Roy (the great Simon Russell Beale), the details of which Leonard remains steadfastly ignorant.
Well, as you can imagine, Leonard’s carefully controlled world come crashing down around him one night, when Roy’s annoying son Richie (Dylan O’Brien) shows up with a slug in his gut, needing a place to hide out and, it so happens, someone who knows their way around a needle and thread. He’s just been ambushed by a rival gang, who were apparently tipped off to his location by, you guessed it, a rat. Bossman Roy is summoned, and as our cloistered quartet (including Richie’s suspicious colleague Francis [Johnny Flynn]) await him, we realize that we’re watching a mash-up of Phantom Thread and Reservoir Dogs. Which turns out to be a fairly brilliant idea, even if its distributor, Focus Features, doesn’t seem to be putting much effort into its marketing.
Rylance effortlessly embodies both the recalcitrance and the stamina of a British soul trapped, for reasons we later learn, in American exile, hemming and hawing through the first half of the picture before revealing (quite literally) his deeper secrets. He’s not the only one with secrets, however—but I shouldn’t say more. What looked to me on first glance as an odd, high-concept, questionable effort turns out to be an engaging puzzle box with a satisfactory (if not very original) MacGuffin at its center.
The Outfit doesn’t promise much in the way of depth or introspection, but it delivers on what it does promise. And it’s probably the first film in history to feature a pair of Chekhov’s fabric shears. (Opens Friday, March 18, at multiple theaters)
THE LATEST EFFORT FROM INDIE HORROR AUTEUR Ti West also doesn’t promise much in the way of depth of introspection. It does, however, promise titillation and terror, delivering both to the degree allowed by its MPAA rating, which is R, rather than the X of its title (or even an NC-17).
West, whose previous films include House of the Devil and The Sacrament, works to recreate the mood of grindhouse classics, and here he’s clearly riffing on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as he introduces the six-member cast and crew embarking on the production of an amateur porn film in 1979. The producer (Martin Henderson) sports Andy Travis hair, while his girlfriend (Brittany Snow) prepares to star opposite a stereotypical Black buck (Scott Mescudi) and a coke-loving ingenue (Mia Goth) in The Farmer’s Daughter. The young director (Owen Campbell) has visions of Godard dancing in his head, while his naïve girlfriend (Jenny Ortega), handling sound, isn’t sure what he’s gotten her into.
Our randy heroes arrive at an isolated farm, where they’ve rented an abandoned rooming house from the elderly owners, Howard (Stephen Ure) and his wife Pearl. Howard clearly doesn’t know why they’re there, while Pearl is more of an enigma, and seems fascinated when she happens to peek in a window where filming has commenced. As night falls, the tension builds, and there’s bloody murder before the next morning. (We know this from the opening scene, in which the local sheriff enters the farmhouse, stares at something unseen, and utters, “Oh. My. God,” just before a title takes us back to “24 Hours Earlier.”)
Age before beauty, goes the snide comment, and X probes the resentments it assumes are felt by wrinkled old impotent husks toward taut, uninhibited flaunters of youth. Growing old and dying are definitely scary, and plenty of great horror has exploited our primal fears of them. But West seems more interested in provoking disgust toward the physical deterioration of bodies than in the mild doses of pathos he provokes toward Howard and Pearl.
They’re not generally my cup of tea, but there’s nothing wrong with a smartly made, inventively masochistic slasher film, and West does deliver in that department. He maintains a nice slow burn through the film’s first hour-plus, before delivering some memorable moments of mayhem. The movie never stops being entertaining, which is surely its intent, but I wish it had been brave enough to go further in its depictions of sex, violence, and decrepitude. One factor against that is the use of non-elderly actors, slathered in prosthetics, to play Howard and Pearl. They’re never convincing as old people, and as their physicality comes more into play, the revulsion West is trying to provoke ends up blunted for that reason.
Having premiered just this week at the SXSW festival, X is getting a surprisingly wide release from its distributor, A24. If the box-office response is as expected (or even if it’s not), it sounds as if a prequel featuring Goth may be on the way quite soon. One assumes it will be titled W. (Opens Friday, March 18, at multiple theaters).
ALSO OPENING ON FRIDAY, MARCH 18
Bachchhaan Paandey: In search of story ideas, a young female film director, with her father’s assistance, researches the life of a real-life murderous gangster, only to fall into his clutches. Released to commemorate the South Asian Holi festival. (multiple locations)
The Guide: 100% of the ticket sales for these screenings of this 2014 Ukrainian film, submitted for that year’s Oscars and set during the Soviet-imposed famine of the 1930s, will go to the Ukraine Relief Fund. (multiple theaters)
The King’s Daughter: Pierce Brosnan plays King Louis XIV, and I can’t believe I just typed that sentence. This abysmal-looking costume fantasy about mermaids and immortality sadly features William Hurt’s final on-screen performance (Regal Pioneer Place).
Stand Up Rahul: A stand-up comedian in Hyderabad tries to decide how serious to get with his girlfriend in this romantic comedy released on the occasion of the South Asian Holi festival. (multiple theaters)
Umma: A Korean-American beekeeper (Sandra Oh) and her devoted daughter must contend with her mother’s vengeful spirit after failing to properly dispose of her cremains. (multiple theaters)
ALSO SCREENING THIS WEEK
at Portland-area theaters (recommended titles in bold):
Friday, March 18: The Brady Bunch Movie  (Hollywood); Multiple Maniacs , Clinton Street Theater; Umberto D.  (Clinton St. Theater)
Saturday, March 19: Dick  (Hollywood); Indigenous Short Films (EcoFilm Festival) (Hollywood); Out of the Past ; w/introduction from Eliot Lavine) (Cinema 21); Mulholland Drive  (Clinton); The Souvenir  and The Souvenir Part II  (Whitsell Auditorium)
Sunday, March 20: The Little Mermaid [1976, Czech] (Church of Film @ The Red Fox); Original Cast Album: Company  (Clinton); Trailermania (Hollywood);
Monday, March 21: 3 Women  (Hollywood); Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore  (Clinton)
Tuesday, March 22: Infra-Man [1975, 35mm] (Hollywood); That’s Sexploitation!  (Clinton)
Wednesday, March 23: Amarcord  (Clinton); Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl [1976 TV episodes] (Hollywood)
Thursday, March 24: Bubba Ho-Tep  (Clinton); Opening Night  (Clinton); Power of the Dog [2021, 35mm] (Hollywood)