This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
The premise of Grant Singer’s Reptile is a rather conventional one: Detective Tom Nichols (Benicio del Toro) investigates the murder of Summer Elswick (Matilda Lutz), who was romantically involved with Will Grady (Justin Timberlake), a real estate agent who may or may not be responsible for her death. At least that’s what the detective believes at first, and he would be the most obvious suspect, as flashbacks show Summer’s relationship with Grady not being on the best of terms.
However, as he discovers more evidence, other suspects come to light, including Eli Phillips (Michael Pitt), who has a personal vendetta against Grady, accusing him of being solely responsible for his father’s suicide, and Sam Gifford (Karl Glusman), Summer’s ex-husband. The case proves itself more complicated when Tom starts to add things up that don’t make sense, and that’s where Reptile becomes far more riveting than it should be, thanks in part to its terrific performances and incredible visual style.
Benicio del Toro Gives one the Best Performances of His Career in Reptile
There’s no denying Benicio del Toro is one of the best actors working today, and he completely magnifies the screen from beginning to end inside a film he co-wrote with Singer and Benjamin Brewer (based on a story by Brewer & Singer). As Nichols, del Toro gives a restrained yet emotionally investing portrayal of a man torn between doing the right thing or letting the case go, which his superior (Eric Bogosian) predictably suggests. But he knows there’s more to it than a simple murder, and as the case evolves, the film starts to overcomplicate itself further.
The first two acts establish the threat and present different clues to the audience, and that’s where Singer will attempt to subvert audience expectations to make the final reveal effective. Unfortunately, none of these moments work, and figuring out who murdered Summer is as easy as putting two and two together.
Singer attempts to thwart its audience through a series of red herrings, whether nightmare sequences, oddly placed edits, or conversations that make a certain character look like a suspect but are completely innocuous in isolation. I won’t spoil a thing, but certain plot elements are presented as massively important to the story’s progression.
They are left completely unresolved by the time the movie ends, especially with how Singer represents those moments visually. Any other trope has been treated time and again in murder-mystery/detective thrillers, and, unfortunately, Singer’s handling of these tropes doesn’t make it stand out among the pack.
Reptile Has Incredibly-Developed Characters and a Strong Visual Style
Thankfully, where Reptile lacks some storytelling pitfalls, it succeeds in developing strong character arcs, each brilliantly acted by a star-studded ensemble of highly talented actors. Of course, del Toro is extraordinary, but Timberlake also gives one of his career’s best and most complex performances. I’m usually not the one to praise Timberlake’s acting style (he was great in The Social Network, but that’s about it), but in Reptile, he’s phenomenal.
Bogosian is, of course, excellent as Nichols’ boss, as expected for anyone who watched Uncut Gems, and even minor roles from Alicia Silverstone, Domenick Lombardozzi, Ato Essandoh, and Mike Pniewski are great. Each respective character has time to shine, and scenes that may appear irrelevant to the plot are designed to give more depth to some of the supporting cast, making some of the climax’s reveals feel thrilling and urgent. Even if I ultimately saw things coming, I was still on the edge of my seat most of the time, trying to question if my theories on who murdered Summer were right, just as Tom was questioning the case and his faith in the system.
The film is also a visual marvel, with Mike Gioulakis proving once again why he’s one of the best cinematographers in the business. He shoots most of the movie like a classic police procedural but visually represents a state of pure paranoia and dread throughout most of the runtime, including elevating some of the tighter action sequences through the blocking of characters within the frame and making the tension feel palpable in trying to figure out who is in front of someone with the use of a distorted lens. He even gets gritty in the film’s latter half, with blood revolving on its lens, and lets each move linger as the situation grows more complex.
While the climax itself feels a tad muddled as it tries to wrap up some of the bigger plot threads too fast (and leaves many unanswered by the time it ends), Reptile remains an efficient, stylish, and riveting detective thriller bolstered by the incredible talents of Benicio del Toro, who reminds all of us why he’s one of the best actors in the business. Add an amazing supporting cast to deepen Tom’s arc, and you’ve got a movie that needs to be seen immediately, preferably in a cinema with a group of people who will consistently attempt to guess who did it. Maybe they’ll figure it out, maybe they won’t. But at least they’ll have a good time doing it.
Reptile is now playing in select theatres and will be released on Netflix on September 29. Are you looking forward to the movie? What is your favorite performance from Benicio del Toro? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow us on social media!