A woman finds a snake’s shed skin at the outset of Reptile, and not long afterwards she’s dead, the victim of a murder born from a serpentine conspiracy. It’s a tantalizing beginning to Grant Singer’s directorial debut (on Netflix Sept. 29, following its Toronto International Film Festival premiere), which for long stretches successfully maintains its atmosphere of coiled malevolence. Such tension ultimately unravels during a latter half that rushes through too many underwhelming revelations, but that’s not enough to completely offset the film’s beguiling air of despondency, much of it embodied by an excellent Benicio Del Toro as a homicide detective mired in a nest of vipers.
In an unnamed section of chilly autumnal New England, Summer (Matilda Lutz) is discovered murdered in a for-sale house by her realtor partner and boyfriend Will (Justin Timberlake), having suffered 30-plus stab wounds that were so vicious the knife became permanently stuck in her hip. Will works with his mother Camille (Frances Fisher) and is, by all appearances, a wealthy momma’s boy and, despite looking superficially suspicious, his airtight alibi and a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime forces detective Tom (Del Toro) to turn his attention elsewhere. A veteran with a steely, cagey glint in his eyes, Tom is a veteran who has the respect of his peers and his partner Dan (Ato Essandoh), even though he has a shady Philly past involving a former partner who was busted for all manner of criminal conduct—misdeeds in which many assumed Tom participated.
Tom and Dan’s sleuthing leads them to Summer’s ex-husband Sam (Karl Glusman), a disreputable sort who lives in a ramshackle house and refuses to talk to law enforcement unless he’s charged or has a lawyer by his side. Sam resembles a prototypical murder suspect so it’s easy to identify him as a red herring, and that goes double for Tom’s hand injury, which two separate individuals remark upon, just to cast doubt about his underlying nature. Reptile’s initial machinations aren’t particularly clever and yet Singer is adept at setting a mood, dousing everything in rich shadows and employing a variety of silky snake-like pans and zooms through corridors, around corners, and—via a few Denis Villeneuve-esque aerial shots of racing cop cars—over solitary rural roads.
Yair Elazar Glotman and Arca’s score is central to the film’s portentousness, providing an ominous aural complement to Mike Gioulakis’s dour visuals. From the start, Reptile suggests its destination is doom, and that remains true as it expands to include additional clues regarding its central mystery. For Tom, the most promising lead winds up being Eli (Michael Pitt), a stringy haired creep who blames Will and Camille for the death of his father (brought about by the purchase of their farm). Like Sam, Eli is such an obvious type that it’s difficult to believe he did the dirty deed. Still, Pitt is comfortable playing scuzzy unhinged loners and his scenes with Del Toro boast a charged intensity that compensates for his character’s two-dimensional conception, as well as the somewhat too-convenient bombshells he eventually drops in the detective’s lap.
Reptile fleshes out its story with interludes about Tom’s life with wife Judy (Alicia Silverstone), her police commander uncle Robert (Eric Bogosian)—who’s dealing with the onset of multiple sclerosis—and department chief Marty (Mike Pniewski) and detective Wally (Domenick Lombardozzi), the latter of whom has just launched a private security firm that’s doing well enough to allow him to afford, and freely give away, Rolex watches. Penned by Singer, Benjamin Brewer, and Del Toro, the film’s script smartly dramatizes Tom’s relationships while bestowing him with a few quirky personality traits, such as his fondness for a motion-sensor sink faucet that he spies in one of Will’s properties and adds to his own kitchen-remodeling plans. At the same time, his wariness about his contractor, whom he comes to think might be sleeping with his wife, speaks to his deeply rooted fear that he’s being deceived by those closest to him.
Del Toro’s cunning demeanor, weighty physical presence and imposing force of personality are so strong that he consistently elevates Reptile, serving as the bedrock axis around which its convolutions curl. Whether hanging out at poker night with his coworkers or dancing at a country Western bar, Tom always seems to be keenly scrutinizing those in his vicinity, and his heightened focus and grave demeanor—even when he’s smiling, he appears burdened by regret and hurt—make him a compelling protagonist. Moreover, reuniting 26 years after Excess Baggage, Del Toro and Silverstone prove an engaging pair, especially during quiet moments together that establish Tom and Judy’s staunch bond, forged by prior travails.
Singer knows his frosty neo-noir stuff and the fragmented-narrative games he plays are well-orchestrated, at least for a time. Reptile, however, gradually becomes a more predictable creature, and worse, its surprises are delivered in an overly rushed fashion that neuters their dramatic payoff. The director’s finale hinges on machinations that come about through hasty exposition and rely too heavily on stereotypical character sketches, be they of rich business people, scuzzy lowlifes, shifty cops or fatherly superiors. Rather than explicating why people did what they’ve done, the film just assumes audiences will buy what it’s peddling because that’s how those people are—a situation that undercuts its seriousness, as well as its ability to say anything about trust, corruption and redemption.
Timberlake, Bogosian, and Lombardozzi are all convincingly fishy components of this puzzle but Reptile doesn’t know how to keep things close to the vest; crime-fiction aficionados will quickly guess where it’s going. Worse, though, is that it unsatisfactorily delivers the very goods it’s been promising. Whereas it initially slithers this way and that with intriguing sleekness, there’s something clunky about its piecemeal conclusion, with everything streamlined together in fast-forward fashion and resolved with stock conflicts and showdowns. The result is that multiple characters’ motivations and fates, and also plot threads, are left either implied or altogether ignored, stymying any sense of coherent closure.
Reptile’s strengths indicate that Singer may yet have a great film in him. His maiden feature’s early promise, however, only makes its late stumbles sting.
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