September 9, 2023
Reptile premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix releases it in theaters on September 29 before the film streams on October 06.
Is a red herring a red herring if you know it’s a red herring? That tongue twister of a sentence rattled throughout my head throughout most of the bloated 134-minute runtime of Reptile. In this police procedural, there are several suspects and clues, most of them presented so obviously to be of fake importance that you know immediately that you don’t need to expend the mental energy to keep track of them all. Even with these self-inflicted wounds writer/director Grant Singer, making his feature debut, can still mount an entertaining movie that is far stranger (mostly in a good way) the more you look under the hood.
The body of Summer Elswick has been found in the home of her partner Will Grady (Justin Timberlake). She was stabbed 33⅓ times, with the final strike being so powerful that it got the knife stuck in her pelvis. She has a shady ex-husband by the name of Sam Gifford (Karl Glusman) and an even shadier enemy in commerce in Eli Phillips (Michael Pitt). And then there’s still Will and his obsessive mother (Frances Fisher). There are probably other people who could have done this too, but Detective Tom Nichols (Benicio Del Toro) is already starting to get lost in the mud of motives and opportunities.
For all its talk of murder and treachery, what stands out the most about Reptile is the enlarged funny bone it has. There are little jabs here and there, most of them meant to raise your eyebrow as they create a hard break from the grisliness. Tom has a fascination with Will’s touchless sink faucet, even going so far as to take a picture of it during the recreation of the moment Will found Summer’s body. I can’t say it always works, but it does make for some interesting moments that make the film more watchable, especially considering the conventionalism of the events.
Most of the story follows Tom and his partner (Ato Essandoh) going through the motions of finding evidence and investigating suspects. The answers are the ones you expect, with the same going for the twists. Singer and editor Kevin Hickman create some good moments of tension through their cross-cutting, overlapping the simultaneous actions of a handful of characters. It’s a disorienting technique that works to place you in the mind of Tom, who’s still dealing with his shady past that forced him to move to New England with his wife (Alicia Silverstone, unfortunately not given enough to do). But Singer can’t help himself with the disorientation as he repetitiously punctuates many of his scene transitions with loud crashes, which gets about as annoying as you’d expect.
Del Toro is giving it his all in a role he co-wrote with Singer and Benjamin Brewer. He’s a man who seems to have lost a little bit of his touch, never really knowing if he’s on the right trail or can trust anybody. It’s a slight shame that the material isn’t able to match his effort on screen. Timberlake has always been an uncomfortable actor, especially in dramas as you can clearly see the effort he’s putting in to pull it off, as opposed to the nonchalant professionalism of Del Toro and Silverstone. Thankfully, that twitchy uneasiness is part of his character. The rest of the characters are real characters, mostly on account of their actors committing too much to the part.
Reptile will likely fall into the pantheon of semi-forgettable Netflix originals. I can’t say that’s a shame because the movie doesn’t do a lot to make a case for its existence in my memory outside of a few questionable choices. But when compared to the other forgotten content, it’s a cut above.