TIFF 2023 | Reptile (Grant Singer, US) — Special Presentations

By Josh Lewis 

Among Netflix’s many crimes against artistry (the algorithmic dumping ground they greet their acquisitions with, back in the news: not paying their creatives fairly, etc.), one of the more underrated is their absorption of the trashy, stylish genre programmer. Back in the day, a comically bleak piece of Southern Gothic exploitation like The Devil All the Time or espionage paperback material like The Gray Man would’ve been prime red meat for our sturdiest, practical mid-budget craftsmen to stylistically experiment with and develop their auteurist credentials beyond the music videos and advertisements they were likely discovered through. Under Netflix, films like these now fit into pre-determined algorithmic slots and are given a generic, prestige television autopilot slickness that mutes any potential a movie like Reptile might have. 

If I can briefly paint you a pulpy procedural picture: Benicio Del Toro is a cool, angsty cop named Tom Nichols, delivering ominous monologues about dreaming about pulling triggers in between investigating the gruesome murder of a real estate agent. He is helped along by his devoted wife Alicia Silverstone (who appreciates that he can “cut a rug”), Eric Bogosian and Domenick Lombardozzi are his possibly corrupt colleagues/superiors, and Justin Timberlake trying to channel some of that Social Network goodwill he earned a decade ago and Michael Pitt dressed to look like Brandon Lee in The Crow are his creepy suspects. Aptly titled for its icy portent—Villeneuve-as-Fincher feels like the point of reference for what it’s trying to accomplish in terms of tone—Reptile is the directorial debut of The Weeknd music video director Grant Singer, given an elegant camera assist by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis. 

Everything about it should scream grim Suburb Noir greatness but the actual experience of watching it is an exercise in pure tedium. Beyond gesturing to vague, undercooked formal ideas about middle-class domestic surfaces/normalcy being used to (poorly) launder darker, more impulsive instincts and the lonely quest to resist the slow-acting poisonous infection of police corruption, there are no surprises, no personality, nothing but banal, shallow style at best. That it all drearily builds to an ending featuring one of the most out-of-nowhere off-screen deus ex machinas I’ve seen in some time, followed by an iconic, completely unearned Peckinpah needle drop only serves to hurt it more. You can’t help but wish the movie had spread more ridiculous swings like them throughout because bad trash will trump boring trash every time—we used to know this.