‘Reptile’ Review: New England Thriller Isn’t Cold-Blooded So Much as Lacking a Pulse
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film ‘Reptile’ Review: New England Thriller Isn’t Cold-Blooded So Much as Lacking a Pulse

‘Reptile’ Review: New England Thriller Isn’t Cold-Blooded So Much as Lacking a Pulse

‘Reptile’ Review: New England Thriller Isn’t Cold-Blooded So Much as Lacking a Pulse

Gently, the plaintive notes from Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning,” an odd choice to open “Reptile,” a gloomy crime-thriller, waft through forked scenes. The sequence begins with realtor couple Will (Justin Timberlake) and Summer (Matilda Lutz) prepping a lavish property for a showing. Then it splits to Will presenting to a conference as Summer hangs in a locker room elsewhere at a gym. Newton’s tune stutters and stops, the picture attempting to form an early suspense from these mundane moments. 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 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 is a merely 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. Mostly because this is a film afraid to let us independently feel; it opts for an overbearing score and clunky cross-cutting to hold our hand through the early investigation led by Nichols. 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. One of Will’s vengeful, former customers (Michael Pitt), Summer’s ex-husband (Karl Glusman), and a shady trust involving Summer’s real estate commissions are just a few of the leads. Nichols doesn’t take them seriously, making it too 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. The minimum drama accrued from both spheres of this detective’s life hinders the elongated 134-minute runtime. These interpersonal shortcomings, unfortunately, are the least of this film’s problems.   

There is no sense of setting or place amid the manicured homes that dot this wealthy New England suburb. How major is the police presence? How big is the town? Are there specific local haunts, people, and ways of life we should know? Singer answers none of those questions dialectically or visually. Instead we switch from empty room to empty room in the empty houses that clutter a seemingly robust real estate market  The area is so detached from the narrative of the film, you come to wonder if the foggy nights that color these scenes are merely the outgrowth of a dream, awaiting the rug to pulled out from under. 

It doesn’t help how misguided the performances feel. Timberlake is trying his best Ben Affleck in “Gone Girl” impression; offering none of the psychological intrigue or earnest spirit that accompanied that far better performance. 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. No one in the deep supporting cast distinguishes themselves either. They’re broad cliches: the heavy, the heel, the misbegotten friend — utilized with little to no originality. Del Toro escapes unscathed, but barely. 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 one of the film’s lone bright spots. 

You never get the sense that “Reptile” knows how to reach the profundity it so 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 for how obnoxious the film strains for an unearned grittiness. Similarly the photography purposefully keeps us at a distance — opting for behind-the-head shots — while placing its forlorn subjects in frames devoid of color. The aesthetic misses are so egregious, you come to wonder if this film is meant to be a parody of Fincher’s handier work. They’re all the signs of a music video director with plenty of ideas but not the roadmap for them to coalesce.      

To a point, the 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. Instead he relies on rote generic moves to assemble a work that barely musters 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. 

Grade: C-

“Reptile” world premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released by Netflix on October 6.

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