‘Reptile’ Review: Benicio del Toro Spices Up A Familiar But Compelling Crime Drama Aspiring For Villeneuve Darkness [TIFF]

11 mins read

Everyone wants to be David Fincher when you’re making a capital S serious, severe procedural, and grim murder mystery like Netflix’s uneven but still fascinating “Reptile.” And to be sure, gray and sinister —like all good serial killer or intricate murder thrillers are these days— director Grant Singer might reference a Fincher shot here and there or try inventively add a little Steven Soderbergh paranoia ala “KIMI.” But there’s an argument that Singer and co-star Benicio del Toro—a co-writer on the film and seems to imbue it with all kinds of quirky personality it might not normally have—have a similar but different aim—one of the dark-night-of-the-soul crime dramas recently perfected by Denis Villeneuve.

Hear me out. Del Toro worked with Villeneuve on “Sicario,” and he recently told its cinematographer Roger Deakins that that experience—and auteur-driven films like it— have inspired the actor to want to direct. Well, one step at a time, and maybe that initial stride is his first official writing credit here in “Reptile.”

And so yes, “Reptile” seems to aspire to something specific, perhaps most resembling Villeneuve’s “Prisoners,” but with notes of all his recent ominous crime dramas. And let’s be honest, “Reptile” falls short of that aim. But the aspiration itself—what seems to be the clear desire to elevate a conventional murder drama to something greater—feels unmistakably tangible. And ambitious attempts are often intriguing even if they don’t always land.

Because, while “Reptile,” on the surface, is about a detective trying to solve the brutal murder of a young real estate agent, it’s really about a cop who loves his job and excels at it but resolves—through the prickly process of this crime— this job does not love him back. And if that’s not a dark soul rumination—ala what Emily Blunt grapples with spiritually in “Sicario”—I dunno what is.

Written by Singer, Del Toro, and Benjamin Brewer, “Reptile” centers on Tom Nichols (del Toro), a detective with a past, trying to find a fresh start through a relocation to Maine following his former partner’s conviction of several crimes in Philadelphia. When a young and beautiful local real estate agent, Summer Elswick (Matilda Lutz), is suddenly killed in a gruesome murder, Nichols—with much more murder experience than the local cops— is the first investigator called up.

And he almost has too many suspects to work with. This overflow is the thorny plot knot of “Reptile,” and it’s surprisingly unpredictable—full of misdirection and red herrings— and refreshingly, as dynamic as it is, not really the point of the movie at all. “Reptile” is about the man, the vocation, his quiet reverence for the gig, the lack of reciprocation, and the above-pay-grade complications of policing—all of which snake themselves into the plot as well, wisely.

Furthermore, every role has a captivating supporting cast, which does not hurt. While the plot seems predictable, “Reptile” coils itself into many unexpected crevasses. Meanwhile, Nichols and his partner, Dan Cleary (a very good Ato Essandoh), must check out all the leads. There’s the grieving boyfriend, Will Grady, who discovered the body (Justin Timberlake), the soon-to-be-ex-husband (Karl Glusman), and also, the unusual stranger with a longstanding grudge (Michael Pitt) against Grady who is in the mix, full of conspiracy theories, and seemingly totally unhinged.

Pitt may be the stand-out and also, for this movie, the bridge too far— as if the notoriously tricky actor asked to play the most eccentric character and then seemingly imbued him with as many peculiar traits as possible (homeless psychopath grunge seems to be the aim).

Yet, intelligent crime movies always care about the soul of their characters just as much as the plot, or more, and in this film, for its lead, home is where the heart lies. Thus, Nichols’ home life and his wife (Alicia Silverstone, the best she’s been in a while) become more than a token element of the story (she’s also written with dimension). This curious element of the film dips into the mundane—the trials and tribulations of home renovations— and the more profound (a couple trying to navigate a new life after living out the anguish of an emotionally taxing scandal that’s clearly haunted them). The Nichols just want peace and a new home to find tranquility in. But this complex new case and all the branches that grow from it prove this dream impossible.

Even all the local cops, some whom Nichols chafes against—Eric Bogosian as the top dog Captain, Domenick Lombardozzi as an equal, and Mike Pniewski as a local chief—are interestingly cast, and, perhaps more importantly, all feel like fully realized people.

Shot by Michael Gioulakis (the cinematographer of “Us,” “Old,” and “It Follows”), “Reptile” looks the part of a pitch-black crime procedural, genuinely. Likewise, composer Yair Elazar Glotman (work on “Joker” and “All Quiet On The Western Front”) helps keep the mood taut and stark.

More importantly, while Nichols weighs all the various motives his suspects have—all of them rising and falling gradations of high probability but with lots of caveats— the detective begins to understand this is all bigger than him and something more sinister, a bigger web entangled in narcotics trafficking, real-estate, police work, and secret alliances.

As things escalate, Nichols begins to understand the deck is stacked against him and sourer than he can bear—maybe his various bad fortunes along the way homicide works have been a naivete about how the game gets played.

Thematically, “Reptile” is not as successful as the rest of the film. It centers on the idea of wanting to shed dead skin—and many lies—in order to grow into a new self and, in this sense, real honesty. And while it works on multiple levels for this movie—the Nichols attempt at starting over and the uncovering of unwelcome, hard-to-bear truths— the richer vein of it all is dreams; for a new home, a new life, a sense of stability.

There’s the literal haunting Nichols faces at night that feeds into his paranoia, there’s all he aspires to, his house, his job, his family, and there’s all the illusions that are shattered in the end when the “Chinatown” notes of futility raise their grave heads. The self-doubt and reckoning of all this violence—is this all really worth it?—is also cutting and feels like it’s cut from the Villeneuve school of considering and reconsidering the thing you outrival at.

Regardless, while these elements may not fully gel, they are the qualities that make “Reptile” feel like an above-average murder mystery. Yes, “Reptile” is familiar in many ways, and a less charitable view of it would be a Fincher/Villeneuve wannabe. But Singer’s film feels like it’s chasing something greater than it actually is, and sometimes, there’s something to be said about that.

And hell, we haven’t even talked about all the ways that del Toro—seemingly in the writing and certainly in the performances—tries to add so much offbeat but fascinating—flavor and spice to the character of Nichols. From his renovation obsessions and inquiries if he can afford this or that, to his jealousy about his wife’s flirtations, to his quiet insecurities about his past reputation to his square-dancing moves that grant him the cop nickname of “Oklahoma,” Nichols feels very real and very drawn in (to the point you wonder if they want to continue making movies around this character ala “Sicario 2”).

It might be odd to attribute all of it to del Toro. Still, it feels so much like the eccentricity and full-bodied unconventional identity that del Toro gives to so many of his iconic characters. And so, this is just another engrossing layer to what, sometimes, can feel like a little meat and potatoes or recognizable. So “Reptile,” the second coming of grizzly murder procedurals, then? Sadly, no. Do I absolutely want to see what Singer directs afterward and what del Toro has a hand in writing next and hope it profoundly sinks much further into that heart of darkness aesthetically, characteristically, cinematically, and emotionally? Oh absolutely. [B]

‘Reptile’ Review: Benicio del Toro Spices Up A Familiar But Compelling Crime Drama Aspiring For Villeneuve Darkness [TIFF]

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