Pretentious, plodding, and only enjoyable in the sense that it’s so overblown it contains moments of unintentional levity, the limp procedural thriller Reptile is trash that aspires to be high art. Music video veteran, first time feature filmmaker, and co-writer Grant Singer’s story of buried secrets, drug running, real estate scams, police corruption, and the wonder of touchless faucets gets off to an interminable start and never recovers. But once the viewer realizes that they’re actively watching a bad movie that’s trying very hard to achieve greatness, there’s a perverse pleasure in sticking around to see how this all unfolds. It’s never a good movie, or even an engaging one, but as a debacle, Reptile is something to behold.
Benicio Del Toro (who gets a screenwriting credit alongside Singer and Benjamin Brewer) stars as Tom Nichols, a scandal plagued detective investigating the suspicious murder of a female realtor. The primary suspects are the fiancee (Justin Timberlake), a legacy realtor who runs the family business, her husband (Karl Glusman), and a creepy stalker (Michael Pitt) who always seems to be lurking about. But the more Nichols digs into the case – and with some help from his smart, supportive wife (Alicia Silverstone) – the cop begins to uncover danger closer to home and corruption among colleagues and close friends.
Something is wildly off about Reptile from its opening seconds, particularly when it come to the disconnect between the script, the performances, and the style. On the page, and largely in practice, Reptile comes across like just another thriller keen to evoke memories of Nocturnal Animals or Prisoners, but there’s a level of self-importance to Singer’s work that makes this hard to swallow. Prisoners and Nocturnal Animals worked well because they were willing to embrace the genre elements at the heart of their stories, and to embrace some dark flashes of humour. Those humorous flashes are apparent in the material, but the cast and Singer handle everything with such straight faces and wooden reactions that it borders on obliviousness.
Everyone in Reptile speaks in hushed, laboured monotones, further reducing the pulse of an already dangerously overstuffed thriller to the point of anemia. Watching Del Toro, Silverstone, Pitt, and veteran actor Eric Bogosian (as Nichols’ ailing superior) doing the gruff voiced, dead eyed, flatlined delivery thing never makes for compelling storytelling, no matter how competently these performances are being delivered. (Timberlake, on the other hand, is jarringly out of his element here.) At some point during the production of Reptile, everyone got together and made the choice to act lifeless throughout the film, and the best that can be said about the performances is that at least they’re all on the same page. Del Toro still finds a way to show some flashes of charisma in a turn that suggests a cuddlier take on a Charles Bronson character, but it’s his least inspiring performance in quite some time.
This decision to downplay an already uninspiring story at every turn isn’t helped by Singer’s manic directorial sensibilities. It’s obvious that Reptile was made by someone heavily versed in music videos because every sequence seems fussed over into oblivion, and often executed by making the wrong decisions. Reptile has some of the worst editing of the year, with cuts coming and going out of seemingly nowhere, almost like those are the spots in a music video where a lengthy preamble is about to end and the actual song the video has been built around is supposed to kick in. But that just makes Reptile feel like a film where the song never starts and the preamble never ends. There’s no momentum to any of this, and Singer often seems confused as to where he should place his focus or energy. Often within scenes, Singer’s attention wavers wildly between his casts’ performances, vibes that I would never call atmosphere, production details, intricate details of plotting that ultimately won’t matter, or fussily composed shots that add little except clips for the director’s demo reel.
It’s an annoying and aggrandizing film to sit through for the first hour, but once the viewer gets acclimated to the fact that Reptile has no rhythm whatsoever, there are flashes of competence to be found. There’s a well written or delivered turn of a phrase here, a nice camera angle there, some nifty production design peppered throughout, but none of this adds up to a compelling story and watchable film that wasn’t doomed from the start and then keeps going well past the point where it would make sense to wrap things up (even going as far as to use two dream sequences just to dragging things out past the two hour mark). Easily the worst big budget detective thriller since The Snowman a few years back, Reptile eventually lures the viewer in by making them question how this could’ve gone so wrong given the talent involved. In the end, Reptile becomes compelling viewing only because of how strangely bad the whole thing is.
Reptile starts streaming on Netflix beginning Friday, September 29, 2023.
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