For a first feature, Grant Singer could certainly do worse than Reptile. The question remains whether Netflix is capable of allowing anything better than routine potboiler material to fill their trove of originally produced and distributed films. Much of the streamer studio’s output has been heavily underwhelming and this latest offering is no different, the only adhesive element Benicio Del Toro’s natural screen gravitas. When he plays a cop or detective, like his Oscar-winning turn in Steven Soderberg’s Traffic or Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, it’s basically a cheat code.
Grant Singer’s best directorial decision in a film filled with clumsy ones is giving Del Toro as much real estate as possible, in many occasions having the entire screen filled by his visage––sad, squinted, glaring eyes look right at you through the dead-center of the frame. His voice, raspy and exhausted-sounding, talking under breath nearly the whole time, perfectly evokes his character: Detective Tom Nichols, the venerable “anti-hero cop,” a man with many skeletons in the closet but dutifully well-intentioned in his pursuit of justice. He tells his wife “there is only one other thing I love as much as I love you… being a cop.” His latest case is the murder of Summer Elswick, a real-estate agent who works for her boyfriend Will Grady’s business.
In a movie of disreputable characters, it’s Michael Pitt’s Eli Phillips who sticks in the mind longest. He is the film’s representative of society’s vulnerable, misunderstood outcasts. He plays a man driven to a crippling level of isolation and hatred after Will Grady’s family destroyed his father’s farm and drove him to suicide. He’s the character who becomes the predictable suspect, almost automatically deemed untrustworthy by both the cops and, initially, to the audience as well, who are introduced to him during the investigation of the crime scene where he crouches creepily with uncombed hair and snoops around in the dark like a raccoon. His character arc is also tragically cliché––indicative of a movie with ingredients for a remarkable tale of corruption breeding contempt in the greater society but is instead satisfied with using Pitt’s ordeal as a gear for moving its plot.
The film mechanically chugs along in overly familiar visual style that sadly calls to mind another Netflix release, Antonio Campos’ The Devil All The Time. The consistent intercutting between events to temporally deceive viewers suggests it’s masking an inability to say something directly compelling about its characters. Its plot twists come home to roost in exactly the places you’d think. Drone shots of police cars barreling down roads with blaring bass induce eye-rolls. Grant Singer comes in from a lengthy career in music-video direction––a frequent collaborator, Sky Ferreira, has a small role––but what skills lie in his videos don’t register here into any recognizable style. This is sadly not Hype Williams making Belly or Jonathan Glazer turning Sexy Beast into an exciting career transition.
It’s well-known that Netflix requires certain technical specifications for all of its produced movies, such as what cameras are allowed and how the color-grading should look. With the exception of those directed by living legends Spike Lee (Da 5 Bloods) and Martin Scorsese (The Irishman) getting to call any shot they want, most other Netflix-distributed films are often indistinguishable between directors. This results in not only a flat plot but flat cinematography to wrap it in. Like Emeril Lagassi’s patented “Bang!” exclamation, which he invented to wake people up who fell asleep during his cooking shows, Singer employs a deliberate sound design that is set at levels to shatter the theater speakers with various menacing, reverberating thumps and rattles. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this movie is meant to be seen on a standard TV at home, most likely with a sub-par speaker system attached, so the loud bangs that kept me attentive in-theater will certainly not exist for most who see it. Then again, most people who watch a Netflix movie are usually doing something more interesting while it’s playing.
Reptile premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and arrives on Netflix on October 6.