Grant Singer knows how to create a mood. The music video director makes his debut behind the camera of a full-length feature film with the Netflix release Reptile. From the opening scene to the end of the film, Singer adeptly slithers and creeps his way through the 2 hours and 14 minutes. He is unrelenting in his attempts to create intrigue and mystery. The attempts to stand out from other crime dramas are respectable, but does the film navigate the murky waters effectively?
A grisly murder sets Reptile in motion on the course of a typical police drama. Summer Elswick (Matilda Lutz) is a real estate agent who has been brutally murdered. Her body is found by fellow agent and romantic partner Will Grady (Justin Timberlake). Assigned to the murder case is Detective Tom Nichols (Benicio Del Toro). Nichols investigates, rounds up the usual suspects, and interviews them with the hopes that the case is satisfactorily solved. These include Grady, his mother Camille (Frances Fisher), Sam Gifford (Karl Glussman), the estranged romantic liaison of Summer, and Eli Phillips (Michael Pitt), a recluse with acrimonious sentiment towards the Grady’s.
Singer and co-writer Benjamin Brewer layer the straightforward story to ensure that things are never as they seem. Obvious suspects become not so obvious, and clear motivations become foggy. However, despite their best efforts, audiences will more than likely figure out “whodunnit” early on. There is more uncertainty about the why rather than the who. But by the time that reveal is made, viewers will be exhausted from the incessant pummeling by mystery and intrigue.
The score under the direction of Yair Elazar Glotman is vital in creating an eerie atmosphere. Much like the story itself, it proves to be effective at enhancing the sinister aspects at first. The creepy tones crescendo towards unexpected halts, creating attention-grabbing suspense. However, one can only rely on the same elements for so long before the effect becomes null. The same can be said for the other components at play in Reptile. The filmmakers are unrelenting with the mood they have chosen. But the story eventually confesses that the ambient decision is unfounded.
At the center of the cold-blooded tale is Detective Tom Nichols. He and his wife Judy (Alicia Silverstone) have recently settled into the New England town. Tom once worked in Philadelphia, but his unwillingness to snitch on his former partner forces him to relocate. In his new post, Tom has gained the respect of his colleagues. His current partner, Dan Cleary (Ato Essandoh), looks to him for career and personal advice. He earns trust from his superiors, Captain Robert Allen (Eric Bogosian) and Chief Marty Graeber (Mike Pniewski), to solve the case at all costs. Nichols has a complicated backstory that filmmakers have chosen to only tease. Audiences barely learn about his past and are only offered glimpses of the gray areas Nichols is comfortable working in. Reptile would be better served being a full-on character study instead of focusing on superfluous aesthetics. Nichols is the most compelling and engaging character; it is a shame that the running time does not dedicate more to investigating the character.
Del Toro brings to life the character he helped write. He commands every scene, playing Nichols with equal doses of cool and calm, but with steadfast resolve. He is as motivated to find the truth hidden under the carefully placed layers of deception as he is to find the perfect kitchen faucet for his ongoing home renovation. Nichols often seeks the help of Judy to analyze the clues of the case. The domestic banter that ensues is humorously brought to life by Del Toro and Silverstone. Along with the search for the Holy Grail of faucets, this provides Reptile with much-needed levity.
Reptile’s skin of deceit and mystery is intriguing throughout the first half. The same tricks become repetitive and linger on the side of parody as the case unravels. Admirable attempts are made for Reptile to stand out from other crime dramas. Yet the failure to explore its central character in favor of the ambiance he operates in makes Reptile an overlong and monotonous experience. Although, one thing is true throughout – Grant Singer knows how to create a mood.