Netflix’s “Reptile” is a compelling, clever little murder mystery that isn’t afraid to let its ingredients simmer.
One of the things I love about Morbidly Beautiful is that, while primarily a horror-based website, it is not EXCLUSIVELY a horror-based website. As such, it allows a cineaste such as myself to review movies that are not spooky in the traditional sense — films that are, in their own way, both morbid and beautiful, but without being horror films in actuality.
Netflix’s Reptile is one such movie.
Released on the streaming platform on September 29th (after a TIFF showing on the 7th), Reptile is the feature-film debut of Grant Singer (no relation to Bryan Singer that I am aware of), a former director of music videos for such acts as The Weeknd, Taylor Swift, Camila Cabello, and Lorde.
By all accounts, Reptile was heavily watched upon release, with upward of 20 million views by October 10th. Of course, any new release on Netflix tends to get a lot of views, especially if a couple of well-known actors are in major roles.
Benicio Del Toro, Justin Timberlake, Eric Bogosian, and Alicia Silverstone are the big draws here, but there is a bevy of character actors as well.
IMDb has the film’s synopsis as follows:
Tom Nichols is a hardened New England detective, unflinching in his pursuit of a case where nothing is as it seems, and it begins to dismantle the illusions in his own life.
As a tagline, this is absolutely atrocious. I’m all for leaving the finer details unspoiled, but a little more granularity is in order.
What is Reptile, really? It’s a slow-burn mystery/thriller with a healthy dollop of cold-blooded murder, eschewing over-the-top dramatics in favor of a tale that is a little more grounded. It’s a little gritty but also a little predictable. Its heart, however, is in the right place.
But before we get into the review proper, I have to swerve into tangent territory for a moment.
What I find truly interesting is the seemingly unfair amount of criticism being leveled at this movie.
I have seen several comparisons between this film and David Fincher movies, as in “don’t watch this, just watch the new Fincher film, or his back catalog instead,” which seems to me slightly unfair.
Are there stylistic choices that are similar in vein to Fincher movies? Indeed. Were they both directors of music videos before launching into Hollywood? Yup. Do I think that Singer is trying to emulate that elusive Fincher style? No, I really don’t. I think he’s a rookie filmmaker who’s trying to find his own style. Nothing more, nothing less.
I mean, if we are getting down to brass tacks, isn’t everyone just emulating Hitchcock at this point? I’m joking… mostly.
But seeing as how this is Singer’s first foray into feature-length filmmaking, I feel like comparing him to Fincher is completely unwarranted. And completely unnecessary. Of course, Reptile is no Se7en, and it was never going to be. And that’s okay. Nothing will ever be Se7en other than Se7en. Plus, shouldn’t it be allowed to stand on its own? Besides, does anyone know what Fincher’s first film was? I do. The abysmal Alien 3 — the movie that took two of the franchise’s best characters and fridged them within the first five minutes.
Look, I love Fincher movies. I really, really do. I’ve seen them all multiple times (even Panic Room). And I will go to bat for any of them (even Panic Room). Any of them except goddamn Alien 3.
So, with that out of the way, back to Reptile.
It takes a wide swerve around the expected Hollywood rendition of a thriller, with fewer action beats than one would expect. This, I feel, is a good thing. While I love some action, when it is used sparingly, it becomes both more plausible and more impactful.
Not many shots are fired in Reptile, but when they are, it’s gripping.
Most of the film’s runtime is actually devoted to slowly expanding upon the central mystery while also peeling back the layers of not only who did it but why.
Eagle-eyed viewers will catch on to a few tidbits before the detectives do, which is a bit of a bummer, but since that happens in more than half the movies out there, it is hardly worthy of criticism. Some of what transpires on screen is similar to any other thriller made within the last twenty years — same deck of cards, just reshuffled a bit. But there is enough newness and nuance to keep Reptile from feeling completely derivative.
It’s the cast, though, where I feel the film truly shines.
I’ll watch Del Toro in anything, and he brings a melancholic weariness to his character, Detective Tom Nichols, that feels palpable. His character has baggage (don’t they always), but his character isn’t defined by it, only informed by it. Nichols is smart. Driven. Capable. But most of all, he’s oh, so patient. Del Toro sells that grim persistence with hardly any effort at all, and I love seeing how he manages to convey so much emotion through his eyes and body language.
I think he would absolutely kill it in a throwback noir thriller, replete with a jazzy soundtrack and black-and-white aesthetics.
Justin Timberlake is a much better actor than I would have expected him to be. As Will Grady, fiancée (and potential suspect) to the murder victim, which kicks off the story, he has to cover a wide range of emotions, doing a lot of the emotive heavy lifting within the movie. Timberlake pulls it off with just the right amount of charm, menace, and put-upon frustration.
It is, however, Tom Nichols’ wife, Judy, played by the ever-capable Alicia Silverstone, who anchors the tale.
She’s younger than her husband, vivacious, upbeat, and just as intellectually impressive. I love how her character arc veers away from the standard tropes of most films of this nature, allowing her to stand on her own instead of being a plot device. It was a treat to see her back in action, holding her own against her male counterparts.
I really do feel that Reptile is structured and unfolds in a way that is meant to appeal to the true-crime podcast crowd.
(Seeing as how that is an exceptionally large amount of people, it’s a smart business tactic.)
On the technical side of things, I have nothing to report. It may not be a masterclass in cinematography, but it’s competently shot and edited. The sound design is great, the costumes are perfect, and the score is actually really good.
Clocking in at two hours and fourteen minutes, it is a little on the long side. That said, I never did find myself bored, however, as there is always something taking place, even tangential details that weave themselves into the narrative whole.
No, it’s not going to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with giants of the genre, but that doesn’t exclude it from being worth your time.
Ultimately, though it does not reinvent the mystery/thriller genre, Reptile is still a worthy watch for anyone who likes to see a murder case get solved piece by piece.