It’s fitting that Grant Singer opens Reptile, his meandering feature debut, with an “Angel of the Morning” needle. Chip Taylor composed that painful tune about a one-night stand because he wanted to capture a passionate and ephemeral feeling. “It was beyond words,” he said has said about the 1967 song. “And that is the power.”
Singer, like Taylor, reaches for the inexpressible. The director, who has so far directed music videos for pop music royalty, is obsessed with controlling the atmosphere and setting the mood. He pushes away Reptile with gripping sequences, tense moments, dramatic pauses and surprising levity – elements that, despite their overuse, keep the audience on edge and strategically blur the lines between dreams and reality. A malevolent score by Berlin-based composer Yair Elazar Glotman, with the help of Venezuelan musician Arca, helps calibrate this tension and adds to the film’s overall mysterious atmosphere.
It comes down to
A moody procedure that drags on too long.
There’s no doubt about it, considering the way Reptile it creeps out in the first half that Singer is a skilled director. But there’s something to be said for restraint, and the helmer, who wrote his screenplay with Benjamin Brewer and film star Benicio Del Toro, doesn’t make enough of an impact here. In an attempt to prove his cleverness, Reptile rattles, rattles and stumbles in the second half. The tricks that initially impressed eventually become difficult to bear.
Shortly after the film premieres, Summer, a young real estate agent (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) haunted by her secrets, is murdered. Her boyfriend Will (an unconvincing Justin Timberlake), the heir to a real estate empire, discovers her body in the bedroom of a house the couple planned to sell. The scene is gruesome: Summer with a knife in her collarbone, bloodstains on the white carpet. Singer traces the crevices and grooves of the couple’s dynamics with workmanlike efficiency. There are certainly problems in the relationship, but none that cannot be overcome.
Naturally, Will becomes the prime suspect in the murder investigation led by Tom (Del Toro). The tough-as-nails detective recently moved to Scarborough, Maine, after a department investigation into his ex-partner’s corruption tarnished his reputation. Tom chose not to betray, a decision that forced him and his wife Judy (Alicia Silverstone) to move. The details of their life in Philadelphia are briefly and vaguely referred to, but it is clear that the couple has adjusted to life in the quiet New England town. They are renovating their kitchen, a long and extensive process that takes up many of the kitchens Reptile‘s funniest jokes.
Del Toro plays Tom with a winning combination of severity and gentleness, moving between these two modes reliably and with believable ease. The detective commands respect from his new colleagues – rookie partner Dan Cleary (Ato Essandoh), the police chief (Mike Pniewski), the captain (Eric Bogosian) and another officer, Domenick Lombardozzi (Wally) – but is also obsessed with finding of the perfect kitchen sink. The dichotomy softens his character, whose job requires him to embody serious masculinity and make morally questionable decisions. Silverstone’s performance, which emphasizes unwavering loyalty backed by a puckish sense of humor, plays well against Del Toro’s. The relationship between their characters, captured in the couple’s domestic jokes and their date nights, is one of the most satisfying aspects of the film.
Singer structures Reptile like standard police procedure. Tom begins his investigation by rounding up the usual suspects: Will, Summer’s ex-husband Sam (Karl Glusman), and Eli (Michael Pitt), a conniving loner who hates Will’s family. The director gradually reveals each character’s motivations, but also repeatedly sets aside the assured conclusions. Reptile likes to subvert expectations. The dramatic transitions and jumps between scenes (the editing is by Kevin Hickman) and the menacing sound design grab the attention and heighten the fear. Nothing and no one can be trusted.
The death of a key witness is increasing Reptile‘s stakes, and the film turns into a more complicated story about power and corruption. The closer Tom thinks he is to solving the mystery, the stranger and more violent the connecting threads become. Broadening the scope pulls the story in some compelling directions, but also exposes its weaknesses.
Reptile struggles to justify its 2+ hour running time. Things start to sag in the middle, with the techniques that made for a dynamic first half bordering on parody in the second. You can only take so many shots of cars driving down highways flanked by pine trees, or characters walking through intimidating hallways before you lose patience with the director.
The same indulgence applies to Singer’s use of sound and music. The abrupt beginning and end of songs in the beginning works because it helps convey the ominous mood that Singer so skillfully creates. But ultimately he relies too much on the needle drops and booming sound effects that guide us between crucial moments. The approach softens the impact; every new scene starts to feel like a red herring. When these touches start to play like gimmicks, it’s easy to forget what the film actually wanted to say.