The tortuous crime thriller “Reptile,” streaming on Netflix, at times feels like the unwise attempt to cram an entire season of a cops-and-perps show into just over two hours. The movie, peopled with a near-bottomless supply of unsavory rogues, tracks the aftermath of a grisly murder by trailing the policemen on the case. Domenick Lombardozzi (of “The Wire”) is even featured among the crew — although his presence is merely another reminder of the sharper stories this movie aspires to replicate.
Set in an overcast marsh town in Maine, the movie opens on a couple facing friction: Will (Justin Timberlake), a real estate mogul, and Summer (Matilda Lutz), an agent at his company, converse tersely while readying a house for a showing. The sheeny manor is all stainless steel and vaulted ceilings, a home that, in its moneyed facade and alienating interior, offers an apt metaphor for the pair’s domestic strife.
Once Summer is found stabbed to death in a for-sale property, however, the movie shifts into procedural mode. We swivel to center on Tom (Benicio Del Toro), a detective who’s fresh meat on the local force; he and his wife, Judy (a convincing Alicia Silverstone), decamped to the hamlet following a scandal in Philadelphia. Working under the stony police captain (Eric Bogosian), Tom presents as a weary but devoted enforcer of law and order. “There’s only one thing I love almost as much as I love you,” he smolders, less to Judy than at her, “and that’s being a cop.”
Thank goodness for that fidelity, for this particular homicide soon proves a Pandora’s box of treachery and pretense. The poised Summer, during her short life in suburbia, managed to mingle with a legion of kooks and creeps, including her ex-husband, Sam (Karl Glusman), an artist fond of stealing human hair for his sculptures, and her glum confidante, Renee (Sky Ferreira), who seems to resent her pal’s success. That’s not to mention the bratty, well-to-do Will, whose resting pout face is only partially the fault of Timberlake’s restricted acting range.
In his first feature, the director Grant Singer (who wrote the screenplay with Benjamin Brewer and Del Toro) demonstrates a knack for building suspense. In one stylish sequence, Tom dials a mysterious number that could be the key to cracking the case. As he listens to the tone, Singer cuts to multiple characters reaching for ringing phones. The small scene oozes with Hitchcockian tension.
The trouble with “Reptile” is that this impressive moment-to-moment control does not extend to the contours of the broader story, which the writers overstuff with clumsy twists and contrived devices. Once the film gets around to revealing the culprit, we have already lost interest, enervated in the face of a movie that, like an overeager snake, bites off far more than it can swallow.
Rated R for coldblooded murder. Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes. Watch on Netflix.