Review Date: 4/4/2018
Rating: 3/5 Peanuts
In a Nutshell:
This gritty, surreal gangster film with an impressive performance from Jared Leto is weighed down by pacing issues and a lack of self-identity.
First and foremost, I want to talk about what this film does well. More than anything else, this film is an excellent modern addition to the Gangster genre. Despite being modern its historical setting prevents it from being directly compared against more recent entries such as The Departed or The Raid 2. And no, it's no Casino or Goodfellas, despite the (more) similar time period. To be sure, there are echoes of those two excellent Scorsese films, specially Goodfellas, but there is a considerable difference in tone which I will address in a moment.
As a Gangster film, The Outsider follows Leto's Nick Lowell, an American GI who has gone AWOL from his unit and gets swept up in the fascinating world of the Yakusa, Japan's analogue to the American Mafia. As the title implies, Leto's character is an outsider, a foreigner (or "gaijin" in Japanese) and as such is learning the highly ritualized ways in which the Yakusa operate. Unlike other interpretations of Japan's criminal organizations which often stray into over-stylized camp (looking at you Tarantino), The Outsider provides what I can only surmise is a much more honest interpretation of this closed society. We are constantly shown images of gangs of besuited Yakusa walking down the crowded alleyways of the city of Osaka, the crowd parting before them, oftentimes with reverent bows. It is in these scenes where comparisons to Goodfellas are most obvious. Like their American counterparts, the Yakusa moved openly in the communities in which they lived and were treated almost as royalty in many respects. However, unlike in Goodfellas, Leto's character seems less drawn to the status aspects of the Yakusa lifestyle so much as the other main draw: that of belonging to a family.
Family and belonging are absolutely central to the film, and Leto's search for connection appears to drive the majority of his early decisions. His character Nick is a stranger in a strange land, and Leto's brutal, cold delivery paints the picture of a man who is empty inside. His cold, wide-eyed stare appears to bore holes into whatever his gaze falls upon with an intensity that is altogether unsettling, and it is not softened even when he finds the family and love that he seemed to be searching for. Indeed, it is this lack of true character arc that holds the film back. Leto's character attains what he is searching for, and yet he is left unchanged by it. This would be fine if the resolution was his dismay at finding no satisfaction in what he found, but instead he appears more to be a sociopath, lacking emotion no matter his situation.
And this is why the film suffers from an identity problem. It is a gangster film told from the outside, much the way that Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai was a warrior film told by an outsider. Though not quite as problematic with the "White Savior" dynamic as The Last Samurai, The Outsider does indeed feature a White American man finding both love and a place within society in Japan who is ultimately the only one able to save is chosen family from the rival Japanese troubling them. But more than this, The Outsider struggles alongside Nick in defining exactly what it is and what it wants to be. Is it a film about family? For the first half, but that theme withers on the vine rather than being brought to conclusion. Is it a film about power in the criminal underworld? Only as window dressing and motivation for the events which the protagonist is forced to deal with, rather than as a driving force for Nick himself. Then is it a film about finding your own way? Quite the contrary, the film seems to hammer home that one must conform to the world around them and shape it only around the edges.
So in conclusion, the film is good, but by no means great. Leto is magnetic as always, the supporting cast offers good performances and hint at compelling characters whose backstories are worth exploring (though they never really are). The cinematography is safe yet interesting, depicting a dark and somewhat unknowable world in an intriguing way, and the directing is oftentimes excellent. However, the stillness of the film, punctuated by brief yet excessive violence does not really work. It feels as if 15 minutes of run time could have been trimmed down without cutting a single line of dialogue and that's a problem with minimal plot or character arc to fill in the gaps.
Ultimately, I feel this was an excellent premise which was not quite delivered upon. I feel as if there is the kernel (or even more) of a great film that was never fully realized sitting buried in what was ultimately delivered, just beneath the surface yet never unearthed.