Home > Reviews > THE OUTFIT – Alexandre Desplat

THE OUTFIT – Alexandre Desplat

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Outfit is the directorial debut of the Oscar winning screenwriter Graham Moore, who took home the golden boy for the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game in 2014. The film is set in Chicago in the 1950s, and stars Mark Rylance as Leonard Burling, an English tailor who runs a store in a neighborhood protected by the Irish mob. Leonard’s store is overrun one night by Richie, the son of mob boss Roy Boyle, and Boyle’s chief enforcer Francis, with Ritchie having been shot by a rival gang. So begins an edge-of-seat thriller involving FBI informants, secret tapes, personal bitterness and rivalries, double-crosses, and murders, as Leonard tries to negotiate his way out of his difficult circumstances, outwit the mobsters who all seem to have hidden agendas, and make it to morning alive. The film is anchored by a bravura performance by Rylance, who has received plaudits from critics, and is ably supported by Zoe Deutsch, Dylan O’Brien, Johnny Flynn, and Simon Russell Beale.

The score for The Outfit is by Alexandre Desplat, who returns to work again with Moore after receiving an Oscar nomination for his own work on The Imitation Game. It feels like it’s been quite some time since we had a really good Desplat score. I didn’t especially like either The Midnight Sky or The French Dispatch, and I still haven’t heard his 2021 efforts Eiffel and Lui, so the last one with which I really connected was probably Little Women back in the winter of 2019 – back in ‘the before times’. Thankfully, The Outfit is a return to form, and is a classic Desplat thriller score which blends terrific orchestral suspense with some excellent period jazz.

For reasons that still elude me, far too many people still seem to think that Alexandre Desplat is only capable of writing dainty and pretty waltzes, when this is demonstrably not true. Right from the beginning of his career Desplat regularly scored crime thriller and action films, and has also often worked in the jazz idiom, and The Outfit is very much rooted in that sonic world. It’s an intimate, stylish, slyly evocative score that takes its time to ratchet up the tension, underscoring Burling’s increasingly fraught encounters with various mob bosses and violent hitmen, until everything boils over in the finale. It overflows with Desplat’s personal compositional stylistics, from the precise rhythmic writing to the specific way he phrases his strings, but the most notable aspect in the score is probably the use of woodwinds.

As a woodwind player himself, Desplat has often favored those textures in his scores, and The Outfit is an especially outstanding showcase for bass flutes. He has worked with this instrument regularly before, especially when scoring thrillers – scores like Innocent Lies, parts of Hostage, and Suburbicon immediately spring to mind – but perhaps the closest cousin to this score is actually The Ghost Writer from 2010. Both scores contain the same sense of relentless tension and pressure, never-ending nervousness and breathless anxiety, slowly and inexorably escalating over the course of the hour, before it all comes to a head in its conclusion.

There is a subtle main theme that runs through a great deal of the score, beginning with the jazzy opening “The Outfit,” and receiving notable subsequent statements towards the end of “English,” and in “I Am the Rat”. The jazz theme makes use of excellent textures including plucked bass, piano, tapped cymbals, and pizzicato strings, all performing a set of sultry, seductive rhythms and moody thematic ideas. It all feels like an intentional throwback to the 1970s – a little bit of Lalo Schifrin, a little bit of David Shire, perhaps a little bit of Roy Budd – and is really engaging for fans of the sound. Elsewhere, cues like “A Long Night” and the jagged, brutal finale “Sharp Shears” really focus in on the bass flute, which Desplat arranges in various performance styles ranging from flutter-tongued trilling to breathy, elongated chords.

A more introspective theme for Burling himself is introduced in the second cue, “Snow Globe,” piano backed by soft strings and bass flutes, which has a wistfulness and an old-world weariness to it that captures the character’s personality, while also allowing some of his hidden depths and personal secrets to peek through the gloom. Burling’s theme is cleverly transposed to a solo violin in “English,” and then appears as a sort of whimsical dance for piano and flute cleverly embedded into the fabric of the turbulent and complex “The Explanation,” before concluding with a soft shoe shuffle in “The Tape”.

The score’s final theme is introduced half way through the score in the unexpectedly upbeat and defiantly quirky “The Next Morning,” and appears to be a secondary theme relating to Burling’s past back home in London. The same theme appears later in “I Had a Daughter” reprised as a sentimental, pathos-filled duet for piano and solo violin.

When these ideas are not present Desplat is ratcheting up the tension with suspense-filled music, each underscoring the various encounters between Burling and the Irish mafia types who invade his store in the dead of night. Interestingly Desplat makes no concessions to their ethnicity whatsoever – there are no pennywhistles or other faux Irish instruments. It’s all about the threat they pose to Burling and his livelihood, and their national origin is immaterial . Cues like “Cutting,” “English,” the more action-oriented “Wounded,” the unnervingly intense “I’ll Break Your Arms,” “The Coat,” and the vividly dissonant and explosively powerful “Tattoos” are awash in dark rhythmic textures which make excellent use of restless pizzicato strings, muted brass, more bass flutes, metallic percussion, and endlessly rumbling piano lines. It’s all dynamic and full of churning movement, really effective. Cues like “Wounded” and “Tattoos” will especially appeal to fans of scores like The Ghost Writer, as they have a similar feel and approach, with the latter having some terrific action intensity.

Of course, with Desplat being Desplat we have to have one of those aforementioned dainty waltzes – this time, it comes in the all-too-brief “Handkerchiefs,” and is just lovely. One other interesting touch I noted was Desplat’s use of what sounds like tailor’s scissors as part of the percussion section, quietly snipping away in the background with the same precision and attention to detail that Burling gives to his sharp, pin-stripe suits – you can hear it clearly in the aforementioned “Cutting,” “Wounded,” “The Explanation,” and of course in the shocking finale “Sharp Shears”.

The Outfit is a really engaging, stylish jazz thriller score of the highest order, and for me is the best score Alexandre Desplat has written in at least a couple of years. The trio of recurring themes, the authentic jazz, the period textures, the moody orchestral suspense, and the occasional eruptions of darkly violent action, are all perfectly judged, while the intricacy and creativity in the orchestrations ensures that the score is a pleasure for the intellect as well as the emotions. Fans of Desplat’s similarly-hued scores, like the aforementioned Innocent Lies, Hostage, Suburbicon, and The Ghost Writer, are in for a real treat, and anyone still laboring under misconceptions of what Desplat is capable of would do well to investigate it. In a film music world where one size increasingly fits all, Alexandre Desplat remains one of the best bespoke artisans in the business.

Buy the Outfit soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Outfit (4:36)
  • Snow Globe (3:21)
  • Cutting (4:43)
  • English (3:23)
  • Wounded (3:51)
  • I Am the Rat (2:28)
  • A Long Night (3:59)
  • Handkerchiefs (0:57)
  • I’ll Break Your Arms (4:20)
  • The Coat (3:41)
  • The Next Morning (4:08)
  • I Had a Daughter (1:19)
  • The Explanation (3:25)
  • Tattoos (2:58)
  • The Lafontaines (2:48)
  • The Tape (1:07)
  • Sharp Shears (3:08)

Running Time: 54 minutes 19 seconds

Back Lot Music (2021)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Sylvain Morizet. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Kirstie Whalley. Edited by Peter Clarke. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

  1. Christine
    April 2, 2022 at 8:07 pm

    What is the significance of the tattoos on the cutters arms?

  2. April 4, 2022 at 12:14 am

    Thanks, Jon. I’m one of people thinking that Desplat = “dainty and pretty waltzes”. Emotionally mediocre. Though there’s one his OST I love – “Ghost Writer”. I love stylist neo-noir music and jazz, so I feel “The Outfit” can become second Desplat’s work I’ll like.

    • Michael
      April 4, 2022 at 10:06 pm

      Mediocre? Desplat is one of the most emotional composers that exist right now. And one of the few who don’t make their scores to sound gritty all the time (like Zimmer).

  3. Bobettechaude
    April 6, 2022 at 4:28 pm

    Oh…… This is sooooooo good. Jazzy as Hell.

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