Director: Grant Singer
Writers: Grant Singer, Benjamin Brewer, and Benicio del Toro
Stars: Benicio del Toro, Justin Timberlake, Eric Bogosian
Synopsis: Nichols, a hardened New England detective unflinching in his pursuit of a case where nothing is as it seems, one that begins to dismantle the illusions in his own life.
Reptile is an atmospheric Southern crime thriller dripping with an ominous and obsessive style that gradually seeps under the skin, keeping the viewer on edge and making them uneasy. Grant Singer’s haunting tale excels when the script delves into fear and explores how good people create a moral gray area to unburden themselves of the guilt of doing very bad things.
The story follows Tom Nichols (Benicio del Toro), a once-celebrated Philadelphia detective who has taken a job in a small township. His wife, Judy (former del Toro Excess Baggage co-star Alicia Silverstone), arranged the position, and his uncle, who suffers from multiple sclerosis (Eric Bogosian), secured the job after a scandal back east left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. That move pays off when Nichols is assigned to investigate the scandalous murder of a local real estate agent.
Her name was Summer (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz), and she was separated but dating a wealthy real estate magnate, Will Grady (Justin Timberlake), who discovered her brutally murdered body in a house they were both preparing to put on the market. Summer was stabbed so brutally that the murder weapon was left behind, lodged in the victim’s pelvis with sheer force. Assisting in the investigation is Nichols’s partner, Detective Dan Cleary (Ato Essandoh), another officer with aspirations beyond the police department (Domenick Lombardozzi, exceptional here), and a mysterious sleuth (Michael Pitt) with an agenda.
This is Singer’s directorial debut after directing music videos for some of the industry’s mega-stars, including The Weeknd, Sky Ferreira, Lorde, Sam Smith, and Skrillex. In short, the man knows style. Still, what makes his debut feature so surprising is its autonomy. From an ominous climb up a dark staircase to a shadowy figure trapping its prey, minimalist symmetry is clean and conveys a visual sense of order and balance. Yet, this is all an act to give the appearance of order when what is happening around the characters is nothing but sinister.
The film’s title refers to the cold-blooded nature of people. In the first few minutes, a character finds a snake that has shed its skin, a metaphor for how some can shed their covers, exposing their cruel nature. Singer co-wrote the script with del Toro, and Benjamin Brewer has infused this discerning story with that sentiment, loading the frames with the subtlest of symbolic imagery. By the time the third act rolls around, the smallest revelations are enhanced by the carefully meticulous plot, the unsettling cinematography of Mike Gioulakis, and the sinister musical score by Yair Elazar Glotman and Arca.
Generally, I never have an issue with a movie’s running time because movies have to be as short or long as they need to be. As Roger Ebert would say, no great film is long enough, and no bad film is short enough. While this review is very positive, Reptile has a longer-than-expected run time, but upon a second watch, most of it was needed to understand the plot. With the exception of the puzzling beginning dinner scene (and the divisive ending sequence), the film’s visual and pitch-perfect pacing hardly make the 132-minute running time barely noticeable and never drags along. While some subplots within the first two acts seem like filler, everything works out in the end.
Even at Reptile’s weakest moments, the film never fails to entertain, even if the ending has a giant plot hole involving witnesses looking through a window, which can be maximized based on how you interpret the conclusion, which is meant to create discussion points.
Regardless of the perspective, Reptile can gracefully navigate the viewer with a steady hand thanks to del Toro’s magnetic performance, which effortlessly seizes your attention. Disregard those critics intent on comparing Reptile to the king of underbelly crime thrillers, David Fincher, which is an unnecessarily high standard. Movies deserve to be evaluated on their own merits, and they have entirely missed the point because they were not carefully paying attention.