Some thrillers coast on mood. Reptile slowly drowns in it. For nearly two-and-a-half hours, this plodding murder mystery sustains a single note of hushed unease. Every scene has the same vibe, a pinprick of vague dread amplified by the low hum of what the Netflix subtitles refer to as “tense music.” A man walking into a building? Ominous. A couple dancing at a bar? Ominous. A detective admiring an automatic kitchen faucet? Believe it or not, that’s ominous too. Because the film never strays from this atmosphere of impending doom, it quickly loses its persuasiveness, like a boy crying wolf one too many times.
For a little while, though, it’s an effective approach. The opening minutes have a seductively sinister pull, efficiently drawing you into the apparent New England dream life of two young real estate agents, Summer Elswick (Matilda Lutz) and her boyfriend, Will Grady (Justin Timberlake). It’s not just the overcast lighting scheme that clues us to storm clouds forming on the horizon. There’s also the way Juice Newton’s timeless “Angel of the Morning” rises triumphantly on the soundtrack, only to be swiftly cut off by an opening door. The movie’s first and arguably only true shock arrives just as abruptly, as Will comes home to find Summer brutally stabbed to death. The title slams dramatically across the whole screen, obscuring our view of her mutilated body.
Seasoned detective Tom “Oklahoma” Nichols (Benicio del Toro) catches the case and works it, very gradually. The pool of suspects is small but almost comically filled with plausible psychos. We can’t rule out the boyfriend, thanks to how close to the chest Timberlake plays his emotions. There’s a dirtbag ex-husband (Karl Glusman) who looks like a police sketch personified, with his pencil stache bracketed by sharp cheekbones. And what gumshoe wouldn’t turn his magnifying glass on Eli Phillips (Michael Pitt), a townie who pulls the classic serial-killer move of appearing among the gaggle of onlookers outside the crime scene and holds a grudge against Grady’s local real-estate dynasty? Eli also has the misfortune of being portrayed by Pitt, the frequent onscreen creep who gave TV’s Hannibal and the English-language Funny Games remake some additional notes of distress; how obvious the movie will become hinges partially on whether he’s the culprit or an easily profiled red herring.
Making his feature debut, director Grant Singer fits a profile, too. He stages scenes just like a guy who cut his teeth on music videos: obsessed with surface effect, less so with how well his story tracks from one carefully composed image to the next. The clipped editing, seedy overhead illumination, and periodic plunges into file cabinets mark Reptile as another entry, like The Little Things or Prisoners before it, on the growing log of David Fincher imitations. In fact, the movie often plays like the work of someone who caught Zodiac or Gone Girl on cable years earlier and is trying to recreate it from memory, getting some of the sickly sleekness down but remaining foggy on the specifics.
This movie could really use a Gillian Flynn pass. It has the veneer of a Fincherian procedural, but not the density of clues or complications or studiously observed lead-chasing. Singer, who also cowrote the screenplay, portentously stretches out his ho-hum mystery, which gets less interesting the closer the detective comes to solving it. (The biggest revelation, the one that cracks the whole case, is uncovered thanks to laughable carelessness on the guilty party’s part.) Padding out the protracted runtime are scenes of the detective’s intersecting personal and professional lives. That his wife, played by Alicia Silverstone, is an encouraging, unofficial partner is a nice subversion of police-movie convention. A more playful thriller might have some fun with their dynamic instead of folding it into the general gloom.
There’s some craft to admire at least. The cinematographer, Mike Gioulakis, supplies some of the same creeping menace he previously lent films by Jordan Peele, David Robert Mitchell, and M. Night Shyamalan. He has an expert eye for the evil lurking in the cracks and crevices of suburban life. Beyond the polished imagery, it’s the performances that prop Reptile up. Del Toro, especially, draws you close with his understatement. He downplays everything, raising an eyebrow but never his voice, even when threatening the man flirting with his wife. Is that lawman strategy or essential temperament? There’s much more intrigue in the actor’s carefully subdued delivery than what the whodunit provides.
Then again, maybe he’s just drowsy. The audience probably will be. Reptile drones through its mystery, almost daring viewers to zone out, perhaps in hopes that we might miss a few key details and walk away thinking we’ve seen something more suggestive and complex than we have. The film has no ups or downs, just a flatline of disquiet connecting one identically inflected moment to the next. It’s the detective thriller as foreboding white noise machine.