You may never see a thriller more determined to tell you what a thriller it is than “Reptile.” The film, the feature directorial debut of music video and commercial director Grant Singer, is so stylish that it’s obnoxious and so determined to crank up the portentousness at every opportunity that it almost plays like a parody of a dense, thorny crime thriller.
But if you take it with a sense of humor and appreciate the performances by Benicio del Toro, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Silverstone, Eric Bogosian, Frances Fisher and other actors trying to put a spin on all those thriller beats, the Netflix production can be a hoot at times. As to whether you’ll still care about whodunit after more than two hours of overheated foreplay and teasing – well, I couldn’t do it, but your mileage may vary.
The structure is pretty classic: We meet Will Grady and Summer Elswick (Timberlake and Matilda Lutz), a handsome couple of real estate agents who are romantically involved but whose ardor seems to have cooled. She’s murdered under mysterious circumstances. Then we meet a group of cops, among them Detective Tom Nichols (del Toro), who’s clearly smarter and more sophisticated than the others because he knows how to pronounce escargot, and Captain Robert Allen (Bogosian), who confides in Nichols that he’s been diagnosed with MS. And then the cops try to solve the murder.
You can probably guess what we’ll encounter along the way. There are people who seem to be in the clear but aren’t. There are suspects who seem guilty but aren’t. There are people with grudges against the deceased, and people with romantic links that may or may not have been ongoing. There are shootouts and chases. There are cops who keep pursuing leads when they’re told to let things go. There are drugs that disappear from the evidence locker. There are cops with more expensive watches than they ought to be able to afford. (These last two things could be related.)
All of this unfolds in stops and starts, in teasing but truncated scenes, in melodramatic snippets. Singer’s M.O. seems to be to begin a scene, cue the itchy string section so you know we’re heading for an important moment, and then end the scene prematurely, but with a giant, doomy chord or two hanging in the air. (Composer Yair Elazar Glotman gets to rummage through the film-noir playlist and does a lot of the heavy lifting here.)
This is storytelling in fragments, giving the audience just enough information and stimulation to know that something is going on but backing off lest they figure it out for themselves.
And for a while, it’s effective enough, helped along by the fact that del Toro can seem interesting even when he’s barely doing anything. A detective who’s obsessed with the fancy motion-operated kitchen faucet in a suspect’s house is intriguing enough, but we also know there’s something unsavory in Nichols’ past, something that brought him under suspicion at his last job. But (of course) we don’t know what that was for most of the movie, not that the lack of info bothers us – del Toro, after all, is a master of suggestion.
But while it’s a nice twist to have the bouncy hit “Angel of the Morning” used as a portent of doom, you can’t play every note for melodrama without eventually feeling a little too smug and self-satisfied. Singer glories in keeping us in the dark through one twist after another, which sometimes means that the big reveals seem almost random and the key moments play like complete coincidences. (When Nichols knocks over a folder and exactly the right piece of unnoticed evidence falls at his feet, it’s time to cue the audience-wide eyeroll.)
The actors have a blast with all of this, of course, with Frances Fisher getting extra points for dominating from the shadows. And oh, there are shadows in this baby, with cinematographer Michael Gioulakis setting his dial to maximum noir at all times.
The pacing, meanwhile, it set to ultra-slow, so much so that it almost starts to feel sadistic. It takes so long for the other shoe to drop that you’ll need to change your socks a couple of times in the interim, and all that waiting means that a string of twists and turns will get shoehorned (not to mix a footwear metaphor) into the final few minutes.
Eventually, the misdirection will all resolve itself, more or less, but in “Reptile” the density is less satisfying than it is irritating. A good thriller can go in lots of different directions, but it should never be this tiresome.
“Reptile” will be released by Netflix.