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Dan Webster reviews "Reptile"

Film still of Benicio Del Toro as Tom Nichols in Reptile (2023).
Reptile, Black Label Media/Netflix, 2023.
Film still of Benicio Del Toro as Tom Nichols in Reptile (2023).

DAN WEBSTER:

Movie stardom is largely about screen presence. Some actors, whether they can act or not, simply own the screen.

No question, an ability to act does help. No one could have portrayed Stanley Kowalski with a feel for that character’s blend of vitality and vulnerability better than Marlon Brando. Yet his physical qualities, in his youth at least, certainly helped. Same with Audrey Hepburn, who imbued her early roles with a sense of knowing innocence that matched her fragile beauty.

And those two are hardly the only examples. Think of Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet or Russell Crowe, Paul Newman or Sandra Bullock—no matter their respective acting talents, all command our attention when onscreen primarily because the camera loves them.

That’s one of the strengths of the feature film Reptile, which is streaming now on Netflix. The film, directed and co-written with two others by Grant Singer, benefits mightily from having the actor Benicio Del Toro at its center.

No surprise there. From his role as the barely articulate Fenster in The Usual Suspects to his portrayal as the vengeful assassin in the two Sicario movies to his Oscar-winning turn in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 feature Traffic, Del Toro has proven to be a versatile acting talent.

But it is his physical presence, the way he fills the frame with a heavy-lidded grace blended with his offbeat but handsome features, that makes the biggest impression. Add to that his habit of seldom hurrying his lines but coolly delivering them with a sense of laid-back authenticity and you have an actor who demands your attention.

In Reptile, which he and Benjamin Brewer co-wrote with director Singer, Del Toro plays Tom Nichols, a new addition to a small-town police force. When faced with a murder investigation, Nichols proceeds with the slow but steady progress of a veteran detective—which, as we discover, he is.

That’s not all we discover, of course. Reptile likely will keep you guessing throughout—at times, it seems, too much—not just who the murderer is but what the motivations are of everyone we come to meet. And at the top of the list is Nichols, who it seems has a shady past. That fact both explains why he is new to town and why, until the end, we’re never quite sure what he will do.

The murder Nichols is investigating is of a real-estate agent, the girlfriend of a local real-estate operator named Will Grady (played by Justin Timberlake), who has an Oedipal relationship with his mother (played by Frances Fisher). We witness Grady discovering his wife dead—stabbed multiple times—in a vacant house that she was supposed to be showing to a prospective buyer.

Nichols begins looking at various suspects, which include Grady himself, an ex-husband (played by Karl Glusman) and a local character (played by Michael Pitt) who harbors a grudge against Grady.

But Green and his fellow screenwriters aren’t interested in just portraying a murder investigation. They pepper the story with an overall aura of strangeness that involves both odd characterizations, especially by Pitt, and weird occurrences.

Nichols himself seems as interested in his kitchen remodel as much as he does the murder. And his dark side comes out when he confronts a guy he suspects of having designs on his wife (played by Alicia Silverstone). Pitt plays his character as a sleazeball, Nichols’ partner (played by Ato Essandoh) makes what almost becomes a fatal mistake, and Nichols’ superior (played by Domenick Lombardozzi) stays increasingly in Nichols’ face to the point of extreme discomfort. And let’s not forget the couple who horrify Timberlake’s Grady by tricking him and posing for photos at the murder scene.

Everything aside, Reptile may not be, in the end, as clever as Green and his fellow screenwriters think it is. Red herrings, after all, can’t mask predictable plot points. But as long as the film focuses on Del Toro, it works well enough.

Some actors have an intrinsic ability to seem interesting, even when the story around them is less so. And Del Toro is more interesting than most.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.

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Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for Spokesman.com/7blog.