“Reptile” opens on the plaintive notes of Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” wafting through a sequence in which realtor couple Will (Justin Timberlake) and Summer (Matilda Lutz) prep a lavish property for a showing. It then splits to Will presenting to a conference as Summer hangs out in a gym’s locker room. Newton’s tune stutters and stops. These mundane moments with an oddball soundtrack are meant to create early suspense: Summer will eventually be murdered in a vacant property. And Will is the prime suspect.
And yet, “Reptile,” the directorial feature from Grant Singer — a music video director known for his collaborations with The Weeknd and Taylor Swift — isn’t really about Summer or Will. It concerns Detective Tom Nichols (Benicio del Toro, a co-writer on the script). Sporting a jet-black pompadour and a suave leather jacket, he is not only investigating Summer’s death but also the rot lurking within his police department. Singer’s “Reptile,” distributed by Netflix, wants to be a David Fincher procedural with Steven Soderbergh’s paranoia, but it’s a fangless homage without suspense, logic, or shame.
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Set in the New England suburb of Scarborough, the film, written by Benjamin Brewer, Singer, and del Toro, struggles early on to find its footing. It’s a film afraid to let us independently feel, opting for an overbearing score and clunky cross-cutting to hold our hand through the early investigation. We move, uneasily, between scenes of Nichols questioning Will to slices of life from Nichols’ charming domesticity with his wife Judy (Alicia Silverstone). Recently the couple moved to this town to escape Philadelphia, where Nichols was embroiled in a scandal involving his corrupt partner. Even in New England, however, Nichols remains tainted.
There isn’t much intrigue in the case itself. The leads include one of Will’s former customers turned vengeful (Michael Pitt), Summer’s ex-husband (Karl Glusman), and a shady trust involving Summer’s real estate commissions. Nichols doesn’t take them seriously, making it easy for the viewer to ignore them, too. The view inside the precinct isn’t much better: Nichols’ captain (Eric Bogosian) is battling cancer; Nichols’ partner (Ato Essandoh) is a typical best bud; and another colleague, Wally (Domenick Lombardozzi) is opening a private security firm and wants Nichols to join. There’s minimum drama in both spheres of the detective’s life, which hinders the elongated 134-minute runtime.
What’s more frustrating is there’s no sense of setting or place amid the manicured homes that dot this wealthy New England suburb. How significant is the police presence? How big is the town? Are there specific local haunts, people, and ways of life we should know? Instead, Singer switches from room to room in the empty houses that clutter a seemingly robust real estate market. The area is so detached from the narrative that the foggy nights that color these scenes seem like the outgrowth of a dream.
Performances also feel misguided. Timberlake tries his best impression of Ben Affleck in “Gone Girl,” but with none of the psychological intrigue or earnest spirit. Silverstone’s innate coyness, typically a strong tool in her repertoire, is ill-fitting in a puzzling narrative compelled by tiny signs, small hints, and ambiguous motives. She often takes us off the film’s trail in a fashion that plays as unintentional. The deep supporting cast doesn’t distinguish itself with a collection of broad cliches: the heavy, the heel, the misbegotten friend. Del Toro escapes barely unscathed, if only because he thrives playing oddballs and enigmas. A scene where someone asks him why they call him “Oklahoma” — “Because I can cut a line,” del Toro says with a wink — is a bright spot.
“Reptile” doesn’t know how to reach the profundity it desires. After the first hour, the film drones on (and on) around bad clues and worse assumptions. Where is the rhythm? Where is the touch of mood or tone? Editor Kevin Hickman opts for smash cuts to elicit thrills, but inadvertently garners laughs; the film strains for an unearned grittiness that becomes obnoxious. The photography also keeps us at a distance with behind-the-head shots while placing its forlorn subjects in frames devoid of color. The aesthetic misses make the film seem like a parody of Fincher’s handier work and suggest a music video director who has plenty of ideas but lacks the roadmap that would make them coalesce.
The film’s final act of violence leans toward the intentionally absurd. It’s vicious and loud, and spurred by a Frisbee. Singer’s film would be infinitely better if he filled his narrative with more of these absurd moments rather than rote moves that barely muster the ability to say “cops are corrupt.” Thanks “Reptile,” for the breaking news. But it’s probably best for this crime-thriller to simply slither away.
“Reptile” world premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released by Netflix on October 6.
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