MOVIE REVIEW – Reptile, Netflix’s self-produced dark and deep thriller, stars Benicio Del Toro as a once broken but determined cop. The film’s fundamentally intriguing yet undulating story has traces of David Fincher and Denis Villeneuve, while depicting a unique human drama through an extremely dark investigation. Del Toro’s character, Nichols, confronts his own past and demons in the midst of a complex murder case.
Many directors are looking to the influence of David Fincher to create a dark, in-depth film noir crime drama, much like Netflix’s Reptile, a movie of varying quality that builds too slowly but is ultimately compelling. These days, the better murder or serial killer stories often have a hint of gray and sinister. Director Grant Singer occasionally adds elements of paranoia reminiscent of Fincher or Steven Soderbergh, as we saw in KIMI. However, it is clear that Singer and the film’s co-writer Benicio del Toro have their own particular vision, which also resembles the work of a third director: the psychological crime dramas of Denis Villeneuve, which have been masterfully presented in recent years.
Del Toro has already starred in two of Villeneuve’s Sicario films, and recently told his cinematographer Roger Deakins that the experience – and auteur films like it – inspired him to direct. Well, one step at a time, and perhaps the first step is here, with his first official screenwriting credit on Reptile – though he didn’t direct that movie, he only helped write the translator’s script.
So it’s clear that this isn’t just another Netflix crowdsourced movie, the makers of Reptile wanted to bring something unique to the table, despite the fact that the movie is perhaps most similar to Villeneuve’s Prisoners, but with stylistic traits of his similarly dark crime drama. Unfortunately, for all its ambition, Reptile falls short of its artistic ambitions. But the ambition itself – the obvious desire to turn a murder drama based on a traditional crime story into a unique film noir – is undoubtedly evident. It’s just a shame that the movie’s poor pacing means that it can’t live up to its lofty ambitions.
On the surface, Reptile is about a detective trying to solve the brutal murder of a young real estate agent. However, the real message of the film is deeper: it is about a policeman who does his job with passion and perseverance, but through the process of the crime he realizes that the job does not reward his dedication – somewhat reminiscent of the psychological problems Emily Blunt faces in Sicario.
Reptile was written by Singer, Del Toro and Benjamin Brewer. The story centers on Tom Nichols (Del Toro), a detective with a troubled past who seeks a fresh start in Maine after his former partner is convicted of corruption in Philadelphia. When a young and beautiful local real estate agent, Summer Elswick (Matilda Lutz), is brutally murdered, Nichols – who has far more homicide experience than the local cops – is immediately recruited to investigate.
The Reptile is full of suspects, and the complexity of the plot makes it difficult to predict what will happen next, with countless surprising twists and turns. Although the events are fast-paced, this is not the real message of the movie. Reptile reveals the depths of the human soul, the challenges of the profession, the tensions of lack of recognition and the complexity of police work.
Great supporting cast
The movie has an excellent supporting cast and excellent acting. Although Reptile’s story may seem predictable at first glance, the movie has some surprising twists and turns in store for the viewer. Nichols and his partner Dan Cleary (Ato Essandoh) must pay attention to every detail. The body of a brutally murdered woman is found by her boyfriend, Will Grady (Justin Timberlake), and of course he is a suspect, but so is her ex-husband (Karl Glusman) and a strange and oddly aggressive man, Eli Philips (Michael Pitt), who has a long-standing hatred for Grady. The movie is full of conspiracy theories and some disturbing and underdeveloped plot twists. Pitt’s character is perhaps the most memorable in the whole movie, but he seems to overplay the character at times – it’s as if the famously unpredictable actor wanted a very extravagant role, played in his own style, but in doing so he stands out a bit from the whole movie.
Of course, intelligent crime thrillers have always placed great emphasis on the psyche of their characters, which is often even more important than the plot. For the protagonist in this movie, home is the depth of his soul. In that sense, Nichols’ home life and his wife (Alicia Silverstone, who we haven’t seen play this well in a long time) are more than just supporting characters in this story. This part of the movie gives a glimpse into the everyday life – the challenges of renovating a house – but also deals with deeper issues, such as a couple’s struggle to start a new life after an emotionally charged scandal. All the Nichols family wants is peace and a new home, but this complex new case and all its ramifications seriously threaten that dream.
Some of the local law enforcement officials Nichols encounters – Eric Bogosian as a police captain, Domenick Lombardozzi as his counterpart and Mike Pniewski as the local chief – all prove to be interesting choices and, more importantly, all are fully fleshed out, well-developed characters.
The movie is made even more memorable by the work of cinematographer Michael Gioulakis, who makes Reptile a true film noir in terms of visuals, while the melodies by composer Yair Elazar Glotman (composer of Joker and The Situation in the West) also create a tense and dark atmosphere.
More importantly, as Nichols tries to understand the motives of his suspects, he realizes that the whole case is much bigger and darker than he first thought: it’s a vast web that also involves drug dealing, real estate deals, police work, secret alliances and corruption.
So would Reptile be another crime classic, a long-awaited Netflix hit? Unfortunately, it’s not. The overstuffed plot, with an unnecessary number of subplots, fails to unfold sufficiently and many scenes should have ended up on the cutting room floor. Still, I’m looking forward to Singer’s next movie and to seeing what new project he might work on with del Toro. My hope is that both of them will present a deeper, more detailed, and most importantly, more to the point portrayal of the various facets of darkness, be it from an aesthetic, character, cinematic, or emotional point of view.