It’s fitting that Grant Singer opens Reptile, his meandering feature directorial debut, with an “Angel of the Morning” needle drop. Chip Taylor composed that aching tune about a one-night stand because he wanted to capture a passionate and ephemeral feeling. “It was beyond words,” he has said of the 1967 song. “And that is the power.”
Singer, like Taylor, reaches for the ineffable. The director, who’s helmed music videos for pop music royalty up until this point, is obsessed with controlling atmosphere and setting the mood. He crowds Reptile with gripping sequences, suspenseful moments, dramatic pauses and surprising levity — elements that, despite their overuse, keep the audience on edge and strategically blur the lines between dreams and reality. A malevolent score by Berlin-based composer Yair Elazar Glotman, with an assist from Venezuelan musician Arca, helps calibrate this tension and adds to the movie’s overall mysterious air.
The Bottom Line
A moody procedural that overstays its welcome.
There’s no doubt, from the way Reptile creeps in the first half, that Singer is a skilled director. But there’s something to be said for restraint, which the helmer, who wrote his screenplay with Benjamin Brewer and the film’s star Benicio Del Toro, doesn’t exercise enough of here. In an effort to prove its cleverness, Reptile clanks, rattles and stumbles in its second half. The tricks that initially impressed eventually become hard to endure.
Soon after the film opens, Summer, a young realtor (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) haunted by her secrets, is murdered. Her boyfriend Will (an unconvincing Justin Timberlake), the heir to a real estate empire, discovers her body in the bedroom of a house the couple planned to sell. The site is gruesome: Summer with a knife in her clavicle, blood staining the white carpet. Singer traces the fissures and grooves of the couple’s dynamic with a workman-like efficiency. There are problems in the relationship, sure, but none that couldn’t be overcome.
Naturally, Will becomes the primary suspect in the homicide investigation led by Tom (Del Toro). The steely detective recently moved to Scarborough, Maine, after a departmental inquiry into his ex partner’s corruption tarnished his reputation. Tom chose not to snitch, a decision that forced him and his wife Judy (Alicia Silverstone) to relocate. The details of their life in Philadelphia are referenced briefly and in vague terms, but it’s clear the pair have adjusted to life in the quiet New England town. They are in the middle of renovating their kitchen, a lengthy and intrusive process that sets up many of Reptile’s funniest jokes.
Del Toro plays Tom with a winning combination of sternness and softness, moving reliably and with believable ease between these two modes. The detective commands respect among his new colleagues — rookie partner Dan Cleary (Ato Essandoh), the police chief (Mike Pniewski), the captain (Eric Bogosian) and another officer, Domenick Lombardozzi (Wally) — but also obsesses about finding the perfect kitchen sink. The dichotomy sweetens his character, whose job requires him to embody a severe masculinity and make morally dubious decisions. Silverstone’s performance — emphasizing an unwavering loyalty bolstered by a puckish sense of humor — plays well against Del Toro’s. The relationship between their characters, captured in the couple’s domestic banter and their date nights, is one of the more gratifying aspects of the film.
Singer structures Reptile like a standard police procedural. Tom begins his investigation by rounding up the usual suspects: Will, Summer’s ex-husband Sam (Karl Glusman) and Eli (Michael Pitt), a conspiratorially inclined loner who hates Will’s family. The director gradually reveals each character’s motivations but also repeatedly upends assured conclusions. Reptile relishes subverting expectations. The dramatic cuts and jumps between scenes (editing is by Kevin Hickman) and the menacing sound design seize attention and heighten anxiety. Nothing and no one can be trusted.
The death of a key witness intensifies Reptile’s stakes, and the film morphs into a knottier tale of power and corruption. The closer Tom thinks he is to solving the mystery, the stranger and gnarlier the connecting threads become. Broadening the scope pulls the narrative in some compelling directions, but also exposes its weaknesses.
Reptile struggles to justify its 2-hour-plus runtime. It starts to sag in the middle, with the techniques that made for a dynamic first half bordering on parody in the second. One can only take so many shots of cars cruising highways flanked by coniferous tracts of land or characters walking through intimidating hallways before losing patience with the director.
The same indulgence is true of Singer’s use of sound and music. The abrupt start-and-stop of songs in the early going works because it helps telegraph the foreboding mood Singer so expertly crafts. But he ultimately leans too much on the needle drops and booming sound effects shepherding us between crucial moments. The approach dulls the impact; every new scene begins to feel like a red herring. When these touches start to play as gimmicks, it’s easy to forget what the film wanted to say in the first place.