There are two different movies at play in Reptile. Both are police procedurals. One is weirder and more esoteric than you’d expect. That movie is a fitting inclusion here at the Toronto International Film Festival. The other is a far more generic flick, one with characters behaving strangely just to justify plot points. These two different movies are duking it out here, and while the better one rules act one, act two is a draw, with the poorer film taking over at the end. It ends up making for a mixed bag, at best, but something that does feel a little bit disappointing.
Reptile starts with such promise that it’s a real shame that the third act falls apart so thoroughly. Certain elements are overplayed, strong choices are replaced by poor ones, and the final act is a mess. Had it all been a bit more ordinary, it would have been a run of the mill procedural. It’s the early personality that gets your hopes up, which the film can’t sustain for its over two hour run time.
The film opens by showing us the life of real estate agents Will Grady (Justin Timberlake) and Summer Elswick (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz). Will and Summer are a couple, with the expected ups and downs. One day, Will goes to a home they’re showing, after being asked to come by Summer, and finds her brutally murdered. Investigating the case is Tom Nichols (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner Dan Cleary (Ato Essandoh), under the supervision of Captain Robert Allen (Eric Bogosian) and Chief Marty Graeber (Mike Pniewski). Tom is an excellent, if quirky, detective, having moved to this small town from Philadelphia after refusing to rat out his last partner. Early signs point to Will, but of course, nothing is as it initially appears.
At home, Tom has his wife Judy (Alicia Silverstone) always ready to help and bounce ideas off of. At work, he’s close to his Captain, though looks at fellow cops like Wally (Domenick Lombardozzi) with a bit more skepticism. As they investigate new suspects like Sam Gifford (Karl Glusman) and Eli Phillips (Michael Pitt), more is discovered about Summer’s life and past, as well as that of the Grady family.
Benicio del Toro gets to do a lot with his part, which makes sense considering he’s a co-writer. The creature comforts that interest him give the character color. The way he’s enamored with a certain faucet provides consistent laughs. His more haunted moments are more generic, but when he gets to make Tom idiosyncratic, del Toro is on fertile ground. Likewise, Alicia Silverstone gives real life to a part that easily could have been stock and a waste. Her chemistry with del Toro is lovely. Their scenes together, whether on dates or at home, are some of the film’s strongest. On the other hand, Justin Timberlake never feels comfortable with his role. He’s not bad at all, but there’s a stiffness that suggests he may have been miscast. Eric Bogosian has more given to his character, though what that point serves is debatable. Regardless, he’s a welcome presence. Ato Essandoh and Domenick Lombardozzi are solid but under-developed, while Karl Glusman and Michael Pitt are fairly one note. In addition to the aforementioned Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz and Mike Pniewski, supporting players here include Frances Fisher, among others.
Filmmaker Grant Singer makes a promising debut here, even if the effectiveness of his choices wear thin in the back end. His direction is lively early on, but a repetitiveness creeps in. That being said, the cinematography by Mike Gioulakis is quite strong. At the same time, Singer’s script, which he co-wrote with Benjamin Brewer and del Toro, is hit or miss. The exciting elements introduced early on can’t sustain throughout Reptile. This ends up being a calling card film, though one that shows room for improvement. Still, whatever Singer makes next, he’s got the goods to make it something really strong.
Reptile is so close to being recommendation-worthy. Early on, it’s exciting, fun, and doing something a bit different with a well-worn path. Then, that gives way to cliches and a sense of disappointment. Is it a pulpy effort at TIFF that offers some lizard brain thrills? Sure. Is it destined to be one of the more forgettable films of Toronto? Unfortunately, yes.