A cop thriller with a title like Reptile comes loaded with inherent promises. Will this be a story about scurrilous human beings whose blood runs cold? At one point a blonde mystery beauty jumps into a swimming pool, revealing a sinuous tattoo traveling the length of her backbone. Is this going to be a great bad-gal story? Or, most thrilling of all, might this be a potboiler involving one or more actual reptiles? An early scene involving a furtive glimpse of a crispy discarded snakeskin suggests that at some point we might see one of these sly, evasive creatures, loaded with symbolism and enigmatic glamour.
No such luck. In Reptile, the directorial debut of Grant Singer which hits limited theaters Sept. 22 and Netflix Sept. 29, Benicio Del Toro plays police detective Tom Nichols, a weary, skeptical veteran drawn into a murder case involving a young real estate agent whose body is found with 33 and a half—count ’em—stab wounds. (We don’t see the crime as it occurs, just the after-effect, a lifeless body lying in a low-lit, crumpled heap.) The victim had been romantically involved with slick real estate guy Will Grady (Justin Timberlake). She also has a weirdo ex, Sam (Karl Glusman), who likes to make creepy art using human hair. And a loner with a Charles Manson-like stare (Michael Carmen Pitt) is seen slinking around the crime scene and elsewhere—maybe he did it.
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As Tom is drawn deeper into the case, his own dark side becomes more pronounced—because isn't that always the way? He begins to distrust his adored wife, Judy (Alicia Silverstone). What’s she doing flirting with the contractor who’s remodeling their kitchen? A former colleague (Domenick Lombardozzi) is starting his own security business and wants Tom to come aboard, but it sounds sleazy—Tom eyes him and his offer cautiously. The only person he seems to trust is his old pal the police captain, Robert Allen, played by Eric Bogosian—he’s given Tom a cute nickname, Oklahoma, because Tom and Judy love to dance to country music. But might Tom himself be involved in some shady dealings? As he eyes a costly new vehicle, his partner Dan Cleary (Ato Essandoh) jokingly asks how he could possibly afford it on his salary. He puts in a lot of overtime, he says drily, and when a cop says that, watch out. You just know there are unaccounted-for dollars flowing into his account.
Or maybe not. Meanwhile, as Tom skulks around glumly, it takes forever to solve that murder case—the dead woman is all but forgotten. (The script is by Singer, Benjamin Brewer and Benicio Del Toro.) Pay attention to every detail—a snazzy Chrysler Imperial, a smudge of calcimine paint, the dumb snowman-patterned tape that a cop uses to wrap a brick of confiscated heroin. It might mean something in the end. Or maybe not.
Droney music plays as Tom suffers through his endless dark night of the soul, or just about anytime any character is about to do or think something disreputable. Scenes are truncated before you’ve fully grasped what just happened in them. This is by design—it seems that Singer wants us to think about how little we really know about anything that’s presented to us. No image is trustworthy. But Reptile just feels wayward and listless. The story is supposedly set in New England, but it looks like a bland nowheresville, a place where everyone drives and no one ever walks, a patchwork of anonymous costly houses where nobody wants to live. Where Reptile does succeed is in the incidentals: You get some sense of the bond between Tom and Judy, forged from both fierce devotion and casual affection. She helps him with forensic research, allowing him to chomp not-so-delicately on her hand in order to determine what human bite marks look like. That’s surely love, or what passes for it.
Reptile winds slowly and deliberately to its not particularly surprising conclusion. The big finale is set to Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” written for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and used so effectively in that film that it should be off-limits to everyone else, forever. Though there’s not a snake to be seen in Reptile, there are many, many red herrings. But then, truth in advertising is perhaps overrated. No one would ever watch a cop thriller called Small Smoked Fish.
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