Producers: Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill and Trent Luckinbill Director: Grant Singer Screenplay: Grant Singer, Benjamin Brewer and Benicio Del Toro Cast: Benicio del Toro, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Carmen Pitt, Ato Essandoh, Domenick Lombardozzi, Karl Glusman, Matilda Lutz, Mike Pniewski, Thad Luckinbill, Sky Ferreira, Owen Teague, Catherine Dyer, James Devoti, Michael Beasley, Frances Fisher and Eric Bogosian Distributor: Netflix
Veteran music video and commercial director Grant Singer dives deep into David Fincher waters—especially “Se7en”—with his first feature, a brooding police procedural co-written with Benjamin Brewer and his star Benicio del Toro. As befitting its title, “Reptile” slithers about, smoothly for the first hour or so; sadly, in the second it twists itself into such pretzel formations in an attempt to surprise that by the end the ludicrousness has overwhelmed the mood it worked so hard to establish.
Del Toro is Tom Nichols, a detective on the squad of the small town of Scarborough, Maine. He and his wife Judy (Alicia Silverstone) have moved there from Philadelphia, where Tom had been tarred by a scandal involving his corrupt partner. Now he’s paired with Detective Tom Cleary (Ato Essandoh), who’s green but eager. They work under easygoing Captain Allen (Eric Bogosian), who in turn answers to Chief Graeber (Mike Pniewski).
The squad is rocked by a horrific murder. Wealthy Will Grady (Justin Timberlake) finds the body of Summer Elswick (Matilda Lutz), his partner both in bed and in a realty business, in one of the houses they’d been showing; she’d been brutally stabbed in an apparent crime of passion. Tom, as the big-city guy with the most experience dealing with such atrocities, is assigned to lead the investigation.
Suspects abound. There’s Will, of course, who runs a local property empire with his dowager mother Camille (Frances Fisher); he admits to arguing with Summer, and is played by Timberlake with a shady look suggesting guilt. A special agreement Summer had with the Gradys about investing her commissions also raises eyebrows. Then there’s Sam Gifford (Karl Glusman), Summer’s ex-husband with whom, it turns out, she was still having sex. He’s an artist who uses human hair in his work (a blonde hair was found on the victim), as well as a possible drug dealer. And what of Eli Phillips (Michael Carmen Pitt), the greasy weirdo who claims that the Gradys bilked his family on a real-estate deal that led to his father’s death and keeps popping up at their home? Even Renee (Sky Ferreira), Summer’s closest friend, could be involved. And is there anything sinister in the fact that Tom himself has a recent wound on his hand?
The investigation moves slowly as Tom collects incriminating tidbits, only to have most of them quickly cast aside. There are occasional bursts of action—one focusing on Gifford—but for the most past Singer’s approach, seconded by editor Kevin Hikman, is slow, even somnolent even as Yair Elazar Glotman’s score reminds that beneath the seemingly placid exterior nastiness is afoot.
There are occasional detours to Tom’s home life—he takes a liking to a faucet in the kitchen of one of the Grady properties and insists that it be incorporated in the remodeling of his own house being done by a handsome contractor (Thad Luckinbill) who flirts with Judy, leading Tom to threaten him at the local dance bar they all occasionally visit. But though they bicker and joke, husband and wife are basically supportive. The same might not be true of the macho jesting that goes among his fellow cops, one of whom, Wally (Domenick Lombardozzi) is an aggressive guy who’s starting a private security company and pressures Tom to join it. And does Allen’s confession to Tom that he’s seriously ill mean something? On the surface he seems fully protective of Tom, but does he have some ulterior motive?
Clearly there are enough red herrings swimming around here to fill a whole second movie, even though this one is well over two hours. And the attempt to gather them all together in a satisfactory solution to the mystery of Summer’s murder leads to a last act that grows more and more incredible and irritating. Nor can it be said that some threads aren’t left hanging when the crime is solved—certainly the decision-making power of some of the characters is highly questionable. The result is a whodunit that proves frustrating in the end.
Nonetheless del Toro delivers a nuanced, lived-in turn as the world-weary, rumpled detective, and though she has less opportunity to fill out the role, Silverstone is solid as his wife. The large supporting cast deliver incisive turns, though Timberlake seems tentative in the company of his more experienced fellows; Bogosian, in particular, brings his customary avuncular presence to Allen, and Lombardozzi is nothing if not intense, while both Pitt and Glusman make convincingly scuzzy suspects. The movie isn’t terribly successful in establishing a sense of place, which is understandable since though set in New England it was shot in Georgia, but the visuals crafted by production designer Patrick Sullivan and cinematographer Michael Gioulakis create a persuasively glum atmosphere.
“Reptile” gets points for holding your interest, but loses them for botching the close.