Film Review – Reptile
On paper, Reptile (2023) checks off all the boxes of your classic murder mystery: a twisty, convoluted plot with plenty of wrong turns and dead ends, a detective doggedly pursuing the case just as the rest of his life is on the brink of collapse, a mounting sense of dread as we inch closer and closer to the truth, etc. It’s all there. And yet, for all the qualities that are on display, I came away with a strange sense of detachment. Instead of diving into the story and leaning in with anticipation, there was a coldness that kept me at arm’s length. This is a slow burn procedural that never gains momentum even when the material begs for it. It’s handsomely made with strong, committed performances, but it plays so closely to the blueprint that it never establishes an identity of its own.
The strange thing is that – when it comes to the procedural elements – the film feels authentic. Director Grant Singer (who cowrites the screenplay with Benjamin Brewer and star Benicio Del Toro) takes ample opportunity to show us the day to day challenge (and monotony) of the investigative process. It’s not all car chases and shootouts. It’s also an endless string of interviews with witnesses who don’t want to cooperate, hours at a desk combing over bank records, timelines, phone logs, video recordings, forensic reports, and photographs. If a single detail is missed, we would have to start all over from the beginning. Some might claim the pacing is too slow, but perhaps that is what Singer is going for. He wants us to feel the weight of the investigation as the characters do – in both the highs and tedious lows.
In that way, Del Toro is perfect for the lead role. He plays Tom, a veteran detective who – with his partner Cleary (Ato Essandoh) – is assigned to investigate the death of Summer Elswick (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz), a realtor. Summer was stabbed to death in one of the homes she was selling. Her body was discovered by her boyfriend and fellow real estate agent, Will (Justin Timberlake). Tom dives into the case with full conviction, but we quickly see how the years have taken a toll on him. If there is one highlight here, it is Del Toro’s haggard, weary performance as Tom. With heavy bags under his eyes and a voice that barely registers above a whisper, Del Toro inhabits Tom as a man who has seen and done too much. He senses that things are not right in every aspect of his life. Tom’s wife Judy (Alicia Silverstone) is devoted to him, but her friendly personality doesn’t let her notice the kitchen repairman hanging around the house longer than needed.
In terms of style, Singer borrows heavily from the likes of David Fincher and the True Detective television series. In fact, Fincher’s past work – such as Se7en (1995), Zodiac (2007), and Mindhunter – may have made too much of an impact on the crime genre. Anytime you have a murder mystery wrapped in sleek production design, many will automatically draw comparisons to Fincher. That is certainly the case here, with Singer (along with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis) incorporating heavy shadows, slow pans, and extreme closeups to suggest that something is off kilter. The camera will slowly track toward the corner of a hallway, or zoom in ever so slightly towards an important clue. These techniques imply that danger is near, or that Tom might be stumbling upon a revelation that shouldn’t be found.
As accomplished as Reptile is on a technical level, the writing does not match it. The plot is structured in a circular fashion, which makes it feel like we are being given the run around. The editing will often cut out of a scene a second or two early just to hide important information. There are a lot of red herrings, as if the narrative was trying to outsmart us by being intentionally convoluted. Michael Pitt’s oddball loner character is such an over the top exaggeration in makeup, costuming, and performance that he may as well have worn a sign that read “Warning” in big red letters. Where the story starts and how it ends doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense in hindsight. It starts off intimately and then expands outward the further Tom gets into the case. All of this is organized in a slow, methodical manner, and that’s really where the film will either win or lose its audience.
That isn’t to say that it isn’t without its moments of suspense. Individual scenes are effective in a vacuum, thanks mostly to Del Toro’s ability to convey so much with just his eyes. As he flips through evidence, we can see the gears turning in his head, putting all the puzzle pieces together one by one. When things go bad, he reverts back into his old personality, where his reflexes snap into ready mode. It’s the same kind of persona he brought in Sicario (2015), in which his character may not have much to say, but is always working two steps ahead. Del Toro lives and breathes the noir side of this performance – the private eye whose personal demons keep him awake at night. He is the anchor that holds everything together.
Reptile has a lot to like, even if it is a hodgepodge of pieces from better movies. Many will be turned off by the pacing and familiar story, but it’s hard to ignore the stellar performances and glossy visual design. I admired much of what I saw, even though I’ll likely not give any of it a second thought once I’m finished writing this sentence.