The intriguing new police thriller “Reptile” is a compelling motion picture crafted with an esoteric edge. Making his feature filmmaking debut, Grant Singer has directed a mood-piece procedural with patience and a philosophical depth that is lacking in most modern films.
Co-authoring the screenplay with Singer and Benjamin Brewer, Benicio Del Toro stars as homicide detective Tom Nichols who, along with his partner Dan Cleary (Ato Essandoh), is assigned to investigate the murder of a woman named Summer (Matilda Lutz). The woman’s boyfriend Will (a solid Justin Timberlake) is a Scarborough real estate king. The couple have been flipping foreclosures on pricey homes, apparently under the direction of Will’s mother Camille (Francis Fisher). Will stops at one of the Cavan properties to meet Summer and finds her savagely murdered. Of course, Will is the number one suspect, but the screenplay doesn’t make it that easy. As the mystery evolves and the suspects are many, the film has a bigger and smarter game to play.
The many supporting characters slither through the complicated investigation. Summer’s estranged husband Sam (Karl Glusman) seems to have a motive, while the creepy and unstable Eli Phillips (a great Michael Pitt) has his own dark connection to Will and his mother.
Somewhat new to the small Maine town where he and his wife Judy (a fine Alicia Silverstone) have recently moved, Del Toro’s Tom is still being sized up by some of his peers. He has built a respect and friendship with his captain (the always good Eric Bogosian) and has been welcomed into the family dinners and cookouts the close-knit officers share. Natural character actor Domenick Lombardozzi is Wally, a fellow officer always bragging about his self financed security firm and Mike Pniewski is the seemingly sensible Chief of Police.
As the investigation builds, the film blankets Tom in a growing sense of paranoia. Summer’s murder is not so easily defined and what are obvious suspects give way to a more complex conspiracy.
The drama snaking through Tom’s life is the crux of what drives him. Will’s unnerving detachment, his smug rich mother and the way his department wants to close the case too quickly angers the detective. What should be an assignment to solve a woman’s murder becomes corrupted, causing him to look closer at everything and everyone in and out of his orbit. This includes wife Judy, whose easy rapport with their handsome contractor now seems odious to him.
Del Toro’s natural intensity burns through the screen. His character has a worn face that only comes alive when around his wife. Tom carries with him the baggage of investigating his crooked partner back in Philadelphia. It seems (with the exception of his captain) he is constantly trying to shake the scarlet letter of investigating his own partner. Del Toro gives the role a lived-in feel. This is a man who has seen it all and will, without question, stand up to the unprincipled and nefarious actions happening around him. As it bleeds into his personal life, the character becomes even more intriguing. Using calculated body movement and those deeply soulful eyes, Tom Nichols is Del Toro’s best role in years.
The screenplay is full of nuance and precise details. These days, it is not often that viewers of thrillers are required to think, but “Reptile” gets its title for a reason. There are “snakes” afoot and the clues to their crimes slither through the plot, keeping the audience sharp. As we are seeing it all through Tom’s eyes, the film tells us that no one (not even our lead character) can fully be trusted.
In the way that William Friedkin used clever visual deceptions in his 1985 thriller “To Live and Die in L.A.”, director Singer and his cinematographer Mike Gioulakis assure that no image nor character is reliable. The camera moves cautiously through the air of distrust, keeping a muted tone and never drawing attention to its style.
This is a work where perhaps not everything is tied up in a bow by the film’s end, but viewers should be satisfied. Singer’s debut is strong. “Reptile” is an involving picture driven by steady direction, a deeper subtext, and a terrific performance from Benicio Del Toro.
Written by Benjamin Brewer, Benicio Del Toro, & Grant Singer
Directed by Grant Singer
Starring Benicio Del Toro, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Silverstone, Eric Bogosian, Domenic Lombardozi, Frances Fisher, Michael Pitt
R, 134 Minutes, Black Label Media/Netflix