Much has been written over the last few years of how the limited dramatic series has eroded the market for the mid-sized, adult-themed, star-driven drama with series like Mare of Easttown and The Queen’s Gambit taking what used to just be a movie and stretching them out to a needlessly distended six to eight hours. But a film like Grant Singer’s Reptile argues that the inverse is surely true as well. Here we have a sprawling police procedural absolutely brimming with colorful subplots and supporting characters, built around another quietly compelling performance from Benicio del Toro — in the kind of role where the character’s diligence in solving a murder is easily the least interesting thing about them — that’s been compressed into an unwieldy, patience-testing 136 minutes that underserves the elements that are actually worth expanding upon. There isn’t much of a plot to grab hold of, but the film’s been conceived of as an expansive world of competing agendas and larger-than-life personalities, not to mention a showcase for the idiosyncrasies of del Toro (who also co-wrote the script and executive produced), which doesn’t lend itself to a compressed narrative. The ideal version of this would be something you put down and pick back up in weekly installments.
Borrowing liberally from the Fincher style sheet — lots of tightly controlled compositions and a color timing that favors washed-out browns and yellowish hues from cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, accompanying the pervasive sense of unease — we open on the murder of a pretty young realtor, stabbed to death in one of the houses she’s showing. There’s no shortage of suspects, including her most recent lover and heir to a real estate empire, Will (Justin Timberlake), who discovered the body; her ex Sam (Karl Glusman), who’s both a drug dealer and the type of weirdo who likes to sneak up behind women on the bus and cut their hair for his “art”; and local malcontent with twitchy drifter vibes, Eli (Michael Pitt, hiding underneath stringy black hair). Assigned to the case is homicide detective Tom Nichols, a character in the tradition of the world-weary, big city cop reassigned to the suburbs who harbors some uncomfortable secrets that del Toro, in his infinite capacity to surprise, plays with perpetual self-amusement as a collection of oddball ticks. Seemingly cut from a tree trunk and rocking a cop mustache and little old lady reading glasses, the character also wears a gold earring during his private hours — he makes a point of removing it before heading to a crime scene — and dotes on his wife Judy, played by Alicia Silverstone (giving viewers the Excess Baggage reunion they never realized they were yearning for), with the duo spit-balling theories on the case while barn dancing. He’s also really caught up in his new home renovations, even taking photos of a suspect’s auto-sensor faucet for reference while stage-whispering “I love this kitchen.”
It becomes apparent over time that the murder is more than a mere crime of passion — one of the more ghoulish details is that the knife was lodged so deeply in the victim’s pelvis that it couldn’t be pulled out by hand — but is in fact part of a sprawling conspiracy involving shady real estate deals, crooked cops, and narcotics, implicating nearly every single character we encounter. And it becomes equally apparent that none of these threads will be pulled together into a satisfying resolution that justifies all the chilly portent and dead ends; the case itself is both far more pedestrian than the filmmakers would have you believe, while simultaneously needlessly complex. The film peels off to pursue digressions that never add up to much and frequently loses track of its sprawling ensemble, even killing off major characters off-screen without so much as a follow-up. Reptile feels as though it’s been through an especially ruthless edit, and it carries the scars of trying to distill a tense tapestry about corruption and morality into something streamlined and easily digestible. Having this play out over the course of half a dozen episodes might not make it more entertaining, but it almost certainly would have been more coherent.
And, of course, making this longer would mean giving this del Toro performance the space it deserves. There’s an agreeable anti-intensity to Tom, with the character’s even-keeled disposition flying in the face of all the brooding and grisly crime scenes. The character’s unshowy competence is complemented by how much he seems to genuinely enjoy his life and the small pleasures contained within it, as well as how smitten he is with Judy. Silverstone, an actress who probably never had the sustained career she deserved, is giving such a wonderfully complimentary performance here as a “cop wife,” equally believable holding a prowler at gunpoint and letting her husband bite her hand to help him prove forensic evidence as she is belting out “Eternal Flame” at karaoke (there’s a subplot where Tom begins to suspect Judy might be having an affair with one of the construction guys working out of the house; it goes absolutely nowhere, but it does establish how lost he’d be without her). Who wouldn’t want to tune in every week just to watch these two adorably bounce details from the case file off of one another while juggling a full social calendar?
Instead, it all plays like mere color or a vestigial element of an earlier incarnation, offering a fleeting distraction from a rote if occasionally handsome-looking crime drama. The more the film gets in the weeds with its conspiracy, the clearer it becomes that this is all heading in the single most obvious direction (the ambitiousness of the casting is arguably working against a film like this). Singer, who up to this point has been a music video director — helming memorable spots for Lorde and The Weeknd — possesses a certain amount of formal confidence for a first-time filmmaker, but it mostly feels like skillful mimicry without actual purpose. The Fincher aesthetic, the Demme-like extreme closeups of del Toro staring directly at the camera; there’s even a rather shameless lift of the most heartbreaking moment from Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid that’s attempting to borrow the stirring sentiment without the film having done any of the commensurate legwork. Reptile is ultimately a work that kind of looks like a movie and is structured like television, but is never especially satisfying on either front.
DIRECTOR: Grant Singer; CAST: Benicio del Toro, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Silverstone, Eric Bogosian; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; STREAMING: September 29; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 14 min.