Benicio Del Toro makes a damn fine detective in the classy, Fincher-esque Reptile

In Reptile, Benicio Del Toro plays a sleepy-eyed detective investigating a murder case full of twists and turns. It’s a mite formulaic but pretty bloody absorbing, writes Luke Buckmaster.

Nobody’s face screams “I could do with a nap” like Benicio del Toro’s. The great Puerto Rican actor has a somnambulant energy, part tuned in, part tuned out, awake enough to smell the bullshit, wisened to the truth that it’s all meaningless in the end. A demeanour perfect for a criminal and perfect for a cop. He’s the latter in director Grant Singer’s steely, classy, creepy mystery Reptile, a very absorbing whodunnit procedural assembled with cooly unnerving aplomb, like a David Fincher thriller. Del Toro’s Detective Tom Nichols is one of those badge-wearing bloodhounds who love their job, mostly because without it their life is purposeless.

Early moments have a misty quality that arises not from the air per se but the way the scenes cut off and overlap, creating a kind of narrative fogginess. You can’t see the full picture and you know you’re not supposed to. The film opens with Justin Timberlake’s realtor, Will, preparing an empty house for sale with his colleague and romantic partner, Matilda Lutz’s Summer. After a short scene showing Summer discovering a shedded snake skin, because symbolic, Will finds her dead, because…murder, a large knife protruding from her body.

Then our man Benicio arrives—with his zonked eyes and his look that says “I’ve seen things.” And very soon he sees more, inspecting the house with the corpse in it and interviewing the neighbours. One woman says she saw a man “walking funny, like he had a limp.” It’s virtually impossible for a line like that not to feel narratively important. Ditto for the mortician’s discovery of “something strange”—a red splodge on the dead body that’s paint, not blood. There’s a suspect: Summer’s ex-husband (Karl Glusman), a plain-looking artist who seems a bit suss. But it’s never that easy, it can’t be that easy. Right?

The guessing games and investigatory work begin, for Nichols and the audience. The latter sniff around on a meta level: we ponder what games the screenwriters (Singer, Del Toro, and Benjamin Brewer) might be playing, what tricks they have up their sleeves, how they’ll extend this case into a fully fleshed-out narrative. According to Netflix’s official logline, “a hardened detective attempts to uncover the truth in a case where nothing is as it seems.” Do the marketing people blush when they write a line like that? If AI did it, at least it wouldn’t feel shame.

I was absorbed by Reptile from the start, finding it very measuredly crafted, with a gradual, creeping intensity, slowly rising to crescendo. It’s a slow-burner but I wouldn’t call it slow: the “burner” in that term puts “slow” in a slightly different context, making it more about the intensity of the flame than the speed at which it burns. Singer feeds anticipation by downplaying certain moments, and, staging-wise, resisting the obvious—for instance avoiding a close-up of the corpse. We see the body in the middle of an empty room, surrounded by empty space; that’s enough. This restrained approach means that when the violin strings swell, and the camerawork gets bolder, you know he means business, that some kind of threshold is being crossed.

Scripting-wise however the writers can’t resist entering heavily codified spaces and reheating conventions without any self-consciousness—like an airport novelist who really loves formula, really believes in it, wears their genre influences on their sleeve. They’ve read Syd Field and heard of Poetics. They have no problem getting Del Toro to say “for years I’ve had this dream, a recurring dream.” That kind of dialogue pushes viewers into a state of alertness—not because they haven’t heard it before but because they’ve heard it a lot, and are ready to cry “cliché!” The screenwriters walk this line all the way through, metering out conventions, probably hoping they haven’t gone too far, haven’t rested too heavily on the boiler plate.

Thankfully it comes together very well—into a rock-solid genre piece that’s steely and stylish, the stings in its tail not too dulled by formula. The cast are uniformly impressive, including an emotionally guarded Timberlake and Alicia Silverstone as Nichols’ wife Judy, who does a considerable amount with limited screen time and simple domestic scenarios. Moments with Judy and Nichols hanging out together, discussing home renovations, aren’t dull at all, feeling like calibrated spaces in a breathing exercise—the exhales before the big deep breaths. The most dramatic inhales, particularly in the film’s body-stiffening final act, involve old mate Del Toro. He’s damn fine in this role, lethargic in the best possible way.