Ever since Jared Leto won the Oscar for his career-defining role in Dallas Buyers Club everybody expected him to follow it up with similarly intriguing and uncompromising projects. However, despite an understated performance in last year’s Blade Runner 2049, his choices have been somewhat poorly judged. This is certainly the case with The Outsider, a new film distributed by Netflix. Much as with his infamous role as The Joker in DC’s Suicide Squad, Leto seems to have been lured into a project under false pretences.
The Outsider is the story of an American prisoner of war who becomes immersed in Japan’s organised crime underworld after doing a favour for somebody on the inside. It is easy to see the appeal Leto may have initially seen in the project. On paper this could be a sinister, violent, nourish tale of power and corruption much like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. Sadly, that does not come across in the final product. What we are left with is a formulaic crime film which deals in clichés and offers very little by way of originality. There seems to be very little urgency in The Outsider’s storytelling and its script is as muddled as it simplistic. It is possible they were trying a minimalistic approach which would prioritise actions over words, but it never quite works and the dialogue often feels stunted and insufficient.
“The problem with The Outsider is an overwhelming soullessness.”
The filmmaking is sturdy and proficient; it exhibits little flair but it is coherent and unfussy. Some of its exterior photography captures the essence of its period setting but the cinematography often feels dingy and murky. The Outsider is also needlessly violent. It operates in a fittingly gratuitous world yet its tendency towards shocking amounts of graphic violence doesn’t have any real artistic justification, it doesn’t serve the characters or the story, it just seems like a means to shock, repulse and be exploitative. There is so little in the way of character development and almost no sense of back story or mythology around any of these characters or their respective families that the whole plot ends up feeling empty and hollow.
The problem with The Outsider is an overwhelming soullessness. The whole thing lacks warmth and humanity. It is impossible to invest in the story or identify with these characters because there is so little life on screen to draw us in and make us care. Leto looks as though he is giving this his best stab at some real character acting but ends up coming off robotic and expressionless instead of damaged and afflicted. It is impossible to identify with him or get a sense of his true nature, his real intentions or his motivations. He says so little and when he does his tone is persistently one-dimensional. Even the attempts at building a forbidden romance alongside the violence and family politics is bereft of any excitement.
The Outsider sadly is an unremarkable film which lacks identity and suffers from an uninspired script. It will undoubtedly be forgotten shortly after its release which seems to be something of a pattern Netflix are cultivating with their original movies. Jared Leto may want to consider his next project more closely and not be seduced by the premise alone.