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Home > ‘Reptile’ (2023): A Review

‘Reptile’ (2023): A Review

Reptile (2023): A Review; Benicio Del Toro as Tom Nichols and Alicia Silverstone as Judy Nichols in “Reptile” (2023). Image courtesy of Netflix.

A Benicio Del Toro Thriller That Sheds Mystery

Reptile (2023) is a mystery/thriller that lays out its clues as it strays from murder to conspiracy and back with a motley assortment of characters from elaborately composed detectives to superficially drafted drug dealers and real estate agents. With an unsympathetic mannequin as a victim, an uninvolving murderer, and an excess of villains, Reptile’s actual crime isn’t a failure to produce a person of interest, but a failure to be consistently interesting.

Summer Elswick (Matilda Lutz) is like a living mannequin, beautiful, slender and long-limbed. Like most of the women in Reptile, she seems to be some man’s trophy. Her man is Will Grady (Justin Timberlake), a successful and illustrious real estate agent who heads a real estate agency with his formidable mother, Camille Grady (Frances Fisher). Summer also works as a real estate agent for them. She’s found dead, savagely stabbed to death, in the bedroom of a property that she was showing. 

Detective Tom Nichols (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner Detective Dan Cleary (Ato Essandoh) are assigned the Summer Elswick murder case. Tom is somewhat new to the Scarborough County police department, but he’s tough and wise from working for years as a police officer in Philadelphia. Tom begins a search for suspects and clues that lead him to a murderous conspiracy.           

A Police Procedural, Mystery, and Thriller 

Reptile begins as a police procedural mystery, a subgenre that takes an audience behind the scenes to watch a more or less accurate characterization of law officers and their investigations to solve crimes. Television and movie police procedurals reveal crime scenes, interviews, suspect interrogations, autopsies, police department hierarchies and politics, and the private lives of police officers. Reptile shows it all. Tom encounters Summer as a hunk of meat in bloody designer clothes as first responders are leaving the scene. The medical examiner can barely pull the knife out of her pelvis. Tom and Dan interview Will and other suspects sometimes with traumatic consequences. Tom’s required to overcome Dan’s incompetence, another coworker’s depravity, and the machinations of his bosses, one of whom is his wife, Judy’s (Alicia Silverstone), uncle, all while negotiating a diligent social life of square dancing, card games, and parties with his colleagues and renovating his house. 

There are the mystery aspects of Reptile, from genre expectations to specific cinematic elements. First, there’s the main mystery. Here, it’s Summer Elswick’s murder and then, a conspiracy it’s part of. Next, there’s the protagonist, the hero of the story. That’s Detective Tom Nichols. There are the suspects. The victim’s significant other is always prime: Will Grady. Red herrings and misleading evidence is a characteristic. Reptile sends its audience and everyone in the Scarborough Police Department except Tom barking up the wrong tree. Clues are key, and some of Reptile’s faults are more in how they’re found than in and of themselves. Tom observes perhaps the primary piece of evidence and follows it up, but the rest of the tips are dropped in his lap. There’s a problem with that. A mystery is both a puzzle and a striptease; each clue develops and reveals its solution. An important part of crafting a mystery is delaying that development and revelation to imbue and charge the plot with expectation but discharge the solution with an “aha!” moment  before it becomes frustrating. The “aha!” moments in Reptile are faint and few. There are other minor, questionable mysteries offered without clues. The song “Angel of the Morning” plays; its speed slows to a stop as if someone’s put their hand on the record. Is this a sonic metaphor for Summer’s murder? Judy finds a shed snake skin behind a planter. The tagline on Reptile’s poster is “Shed the lies.” Is the scene a metaphor for the hidden lies in the movie? The audience’s minds attempt to make meaning, but without enough clues, they may feel mystified at best or just frustrated at worst.

A red herring lures Tom onto the track of a murderous conspiracy, and Reptile turns from low-voltage murder mystery into an exciting thriller. There’s some action with a few plot twists and perhaps too many villains who at least raise the stakes to the lethal level. But, in the end, the case isn’t so much solved as it’s wrapped up as an afterthought.

A Mixed Bag of Characters, Actors, and Performances

Reptile is a mixed bag, a motley assortment of characters, actors, and performances both good and bad. Some roles like Detective Tom Nichols are complex, performed with nuances by exceptional, veteran actors like Benicio Del Toro, who is also credited as one of Reptile’s writers. Others are sketchy, acted by relative unknowns like Matilda Lutz whose Summer Elswick is just a little more than what director Alfred Hitchcock called a McGuffin, just a device to trigger the plot. A surveillance video of a suspect, Summer’s ex-husband, Sam Gifford (Karl Glusman), furtively snipping hair off of a woman seated in front of him on a public bus is enough for him to lose the viewers’ sympathy and brand him a creep. Michael Carmen Pitt isn’t as successful as another suspect, Eli Phillips. Neither Eli’s actions nor his portrayal are quite believable. But Tom’s principal colleagues, Chief Marty Graeber (Mike Pniewski), Wally (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Captain Robert Allen (Eric Bogosian) are. Both the Chief and Wally are tough, intimidating, and somehow make an impression as battle-seasoned military veterans. Of the two, Lombardozzi’s Wally is more multi-faceted. He can be an overbearing bully, amoral and unethical, and affectionate and vulnerable all at once. It’s a remarkable theatrical feat. Bogosian is a cinematic veteran whose breakthrough role was in Talk Radio (1988) and who played a police captain in the series Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001-2011). His Captain Allen is the credible paternal foil to his coworkers. Just as Bogosian has experience appearing as a police captain, another well-established actor, Frances Fisher, is best known for taking roles of steely women like an adamantly vengeful prostitute in Unforgiven (1992) and the mercenary mother in Titanic (1997). Her Camille Grady is a descendant of these characters. In one of her few scenes, she meets her son in a hotel’s public men’s room. That intriguing moment divulges the transgressive tendency of their characters and their relationship. It’s a shame that there’s not more of her, more of their relationship, and more interesting scenes with Will, who’s one of Reptile’s most disappointing characters. Part of the problem with Will is Justin Timberlake’s casting. Timberlake isn’t convincing as an attractive tycoon. He lacks the look and the assertive air. Tom’s wife, Judy Nichols, is his true partner in more than one way. She helps him with the case, and they seem as if they’ll be together until death parts them. Alicia Silverstone, who dated Del Toro just after she starred as the ingénue in Clueless (1995), has successfully survived and matured to portray an excellent and realistic cop’s wife.

Finally, there’s Benicio Del Toro’s multi-layered tour de force, Detective Tom Nichols, the ethically and morally uncompromising heart of Reptile. The nucleus of Del Toro’s performance seems to be Tom’s inferiority complex. He desires luxury: the finest dining Scarborough County can afford, an above-ground pool, a motion sensor kitchen faucet. Like Wally, Tom’s tough and tender. Suspects don’t stand a chance, but he would die for Judy – or jealously kill for her.           

Grant Singer Demonstrates His Abilities in His First Feature

Best known for his music videos for The Weeknd like “Can’t Feel My Face (2015), Reptile is director Grant Singer’s debut feature film. With it, he joins the circle of directors like Spike Jonze (Her [2013]) and David Fincher (Se7en [1995]) who also started their directing careers with music videos. Singer demonstrates his ability to tell a story with color, props, scenery, lighting, and shots. Prosperous Will Grady walks through golden rooms. He drives his Cadillac SUV to his home, a postmodernist caricature of an iconic house. During Will’s initial police interview, Singer includes a black and white, high-angle long shot of him alone in the interrogation room. Any viewer of true crime documentaries would recognize it as a police surveillance camera video. This shot literally strips Will of his golden boy status. Here, the stark reality is that he’s just another criminal suspect isolated from his means. The other suspects, Sam and Eli, are shown in their habitats: run-down houses with dingy rooms filled with grimy dark wood and thrift store decor. In between the rarefied, golden milieu of the Gradys and low-class existences of Sam and Eli is the ordinary, off-white world of the police officers. Here, the motto “HONOR, INTEGRITY, COURAGE” is painted on a hallway wall in the Scarborough Police Department; words that Tom lives by but are ironic when associated with some of his coworkers. Judy’s sewing room with clothing patterns affixed to the walls is a symbol of her domesticity in a home that Tom is striving to improve but hasn’t yet shed its simple, floral wallpaper. Singer uses the stark glare of work lights and flashlights to evoke the look of crime scene photographs epitomized by those by the classic photojournalist Weegee. He slices other shots with light like those in film noir films, post-World War ll crime thrillers. He smash cuts between close-up shots of characters to enhance conflict between them. Singer’s most remarkable audio work here is the realistic muffling of sound and ringing, synthesized tinnitus during a shoot-out.         

A Benicio Del Toro Thriller That Will Leave Mystery Fans Cold

Reptile is a showcase for Benicio Del Toro’s tour de force character Tom Nichols that begins as an unsatisfying murder mystery and turns into a suspenseful police procedural thriller. It’s a mixed bag of characters, actors, and performances that run the gamut from complex roles remarkably portrayed by veteran actors to more sketchy or superficial parts competently played by theatrical journeymen. Though there are some questionable parts, music video director Grant Singer demonstrates some cinematic competence here with his first feature where other music video directors have done better and worse with theirs. Reptile is neither an auspicious masterpiece like Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) or a stylish disaster like David Fincher’s Aliens 3 (1992). This is a movie for Benicio Del Toro fans with the patience to let his character develop as it changes into a thriller. But Reptile will leave mystery fans cold.      

Reptile was produced by Black Label Media. It was released September 29, 2023. It’s available for streaming on Netflix.

Reptile (2023) Official Netflix Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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James Keith La Croix has worked in and around the entertainment industry for years. He majored in film studies at Wayne State University and in Live Action Video at the College for Creative Studies. He wrote reviews, interviews, and features on cinema for the Detroit’s Metro Times.

Cailen Fienemann is a current student at Le Moyne College pursuing her BA in English and Communications with a film studies minor and a creative writing concentration.  Though uncertain about her career end-goals, any job that allows her to write is a cherished one indeed.