Reptile’s obsession with deceiving its audience is to the detriment of its story (spoiler-free review)

Reptile. Benicio Del Toro as Tom Nichols. Cr. Netflix ©2023
Reptile. Benicio Del Toro as Tom Nichols. Cr. Netflix ©2023 /

It’s really hard to write a story that deliberately befuddles your viewers and do it in a way that leaves people more intrigued than frustrated. Netflix’s latest crime thriller, Reptile, doesn’t quite achieve that balance.

I commend Grant Singer for tackling a lofty goal for his feature directorial debut. Besides directing, he co-wrote the script alongside Benjamin Brewer and the film’s star, Benicio Del Toro. In his own words, Singer says he set out to make a movie about deception and our basic, carnal desire to understand why violent crimes, a question almost impossible to answer.  Why do bad things happen? We’ve been wondering that for millennia.

“How do you make a film thats satisfying while still leaving things for interpretation?” The desire to explore that is evident in the movie, hence the title Reptile, a nod to the slipperiness of the characters, who constantly constantly shed versions for the sake of revelation.

Singer’s set out to make a movie that makes audiences understand what it feels like to be deceived alongside the characters and in that way he succeeds, but I’m not sure if it’s for the reasons he intended.

Reptile‘s story revolves around Del Toro’s hardened homicide detective Tom Nichols. His latest case is a particularly strange one. A young realtor named Summer (Matilda Lutz) is brutally murdered and her body left behind in a house she’s selling.

Her boyfriend, Will Grady (Justin Timberlake), is the one who finds her and soon becomes a suspect, along with a list of other men of varying degree of creepiness, including Summer’s ex (Karl Glusman), who she happens to still be married to, and a greasy guy who is obsessed with police work and is often seen skulking around at the scene of the crime played by Michael Pitts.

Reptile’s glacial pacing and lengthy runtime won’t endear it to many, but viewed as a character drama with a focus on interior moments helps to separate it from the mishmash of directors and films it borrows heavily from. Benicio Del Toro’s intense, yet subtle, performance, in particular, helps assuage many of the movie’s faults. I appreciated that everyone from the leads to the side characters were very well cast.

But one thing I really didn’t care for is the movie’s penchant for relying on smoke and mirrors, obfuscating for the sake of creating deliberate viewer confusion under the guise of artistic direction—if you can’t let your story and characters speak for themselves, scattering red herrings and headscratchers around carelessly won’t suddenly make your film a masterpiece.

You can tell Singer intended to leave audiences perplexed, but it’s a very fine line to walk between creative ambiguity and just being nonsensical. Reptile begs to be rewatched to scour for missed clues and foreshadowing, yet isn’t easily digestible enough to make that a super appealing option for most.

It also doesn’t help having heavy-handed musical stingers hammering home how “tense” and “ominous” intense scenes are. Singer is perfectly adept at building suspense, so the score sometimes feels almost insulting—as if you’re being mansplained to as you watch to ensure you *get* it.

Reptile. Alicia Silverstone as Judy Nichols in Reptile. Cr. Netflix ©2023
Reptile. Alicia Silverstone as Judy Nichols in Reptile. Cr. Netflix ©2023 /

Shortcomings aside, I can’t say enough good things about the movie’s performances and their direction. I think Singer shows a lot of promise as a film director and if he can reign in some of his impulses, he could make a truly lean, mean thriller down the line.

Del Toro is obviously the heavyweight here, but every actor in this movie does an exceptional job. Even Timberlake seems to be tapping into the well he drew from for his praised performance in The Social Network. Alicia Silverstone is suitably slippery as the loyal cop wife, making the viewer wonder just how much she’s got going on behind closed doors and whether she, too, might be hiding something.

For me, I was most compelled by some of the supporting actors’ performances. People like Eric Bogosian (who killed it Interview with the Vampire), Domenick Lombardozzi, Ato Essandoh (who was also excellent in The Diplomat earlier this year), and Mike Pniewski, character actors who clearly know what they’re doing.

Is Reptile on Netflix worth watching?

Ultimately, I would recommend Reptile to viewers who are okay with walking away from the film with more questions than answers.

The performances and overall story was enough to keep me interested throughout the two hour plus runtime, and even though I didn’t fully follow all the twists Singer added to the story, I didn’t regret watching it. If you like things like Nocturnal Animals, Zodiac, and True Detective, then Reptile might resonate with you. Keep your expectations low and you’re more likely to enjoy yourself.

Final Verdict: WATCH!

Watch Reptile on Netflix.

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