Reptile plot, ending & title explained: why the wax on hand?

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Released on Netflix in September 2023, Reptile can be considered one of the most fascinating and mysterious movies of the year. Starring Benicio del Toro and Justin Timberlake, the film follows the classic “whodunit” scheme where a crime is committed, and the investigator tries to find the responsible. The plot is quite complex; many suspects emerge, the truth is surprising, and many questions remain unanswered: who killed Summer, and why? Why is the movie called Reptile, what’s the meaning of its title? And what’s the wax we see in Tom Nichols’ hand in the ending scene? Let’s have everything explained.

You can watch the official trailer for Reptile here on Youtube.

Reptile plot explained: who killed Summer Elswick and why?

Summer Elswick is a real estate agent. She sells houses, she has an ex-husband who’s also a drug dealer, and a boyfriend, Will Grady. At the beginning of the movie, she gets killed in what seems a passional murder: stabbed many times, with bites on her hands, and blonde hair found on the crime scene. Everybody is a suspect. However, after the DNA test, the ex-husband, Sam, becomes the first target. While Detective Tom Nichols tries to arrest him, he starts shooting and gets killed.

Things seem sorted out. Indeed, the police department is trying to close the case. However, something doesn’t add up for Detective Nichols, who still wants to investigate. There is a man, Eli Phillips, who hates Will Grady and tries to give several hints to Nichols. Tom Nichols follows one of his hints and discovers a broader conspiracy: every time Summer sells a house, sometime later, drugs are found in that place, and the house gets seized. Who benefits is a mysterious company called White Fish, which buys the houses after they are seized.

After a lengthy investigation and a bit of luck, the plot of Reptile has explained the truth, and it’s Tom Nichols who discovers it: the scheme behind the seized houses is a conspiracy in which Nichols’ entire police department is involved. They are the ones planting the drugs that cause the seizure. After that, Will Grady buys the houses for a cheaper price through White Fish. The reason why Summer Elswick gets killed is that she wanted to reveal the truth: she had already contacted the FBI about it, knowing that the police were already corrupted. After discovering it, the police agents murdered her and then planted evidence to frame her ex-husband, Sam. That’s also why Nichols’ bosses are eager to close the case after Sam is killed.

Reptile ending and title: why is the movie called Reptile, and what’s the wax on Tom’s hand?

At the ending of Reptile plot, the movie has explained how everything happened. Tom discovers the car they were looking for in Robert Allen’s garage: Allen is an agent of his same department and his wife’s uncle. That night, Tom provides evidence of the conspiracy to another police chief he trusts, but he soon discovers they are all involved. The morning after, he goes to Allen’s house, and the corrupted police officers try to kill him. Luckily, Nichols manages to shoot them before.

So, the ending of Reptile is bitter. The truth is discovered, yes, but it implies that all the people Nichols has ever trusted were criminals. This reconnects with the reason why Reptile has this title: why is it called Reptile? The word refers to the nature of those animals. Reptile shed their skin, revealing a different shape, like all the characters in the movie do. We see a snake skin in the room where Summer gets killed at the movie’s beginning, anticipating this concept.

The movie director, Grant Singer, explained the movie title with these words:

“In the movie, characters are introduced as one thing and revealed to be something else. There’s a shedding of skin that occurs, and it felt like an appropriate metaphor for the film. Some of the most unethical people in the film can be very likable in moments.”

The director also said:

“I love one-word titles. Titles like Heat, Casino, just things that feel bold. When that title came to me, it didn’t remind me of any other movie.”

What’s the meaning of the wax in Tom Nichols’ hand at the ending of Reptile? That image puzzled many viewers, wondering if that scene hides a darker explanation. But the simplest solution is always the most reliable: that was a paraffin wax bath, commonly used to provide relief to muscles and joints. Nichols had his hand injured since the beginning of the movie. However, seeing his wife removing the wax from his hands seems again a metaphor for shedding skin, reconnecting to the movie title.

Many other questions may remain unanswered about the plot, the ending, and the meaning of the movie Reptile, and that’s simply because the film hasn’t explained the solution clearly. It’s one of the goals the director wanted to achieve: “One of the things I love about movies is that they can be enigmatic; you can leave viewers with questions. There’s a reason why I’m leaving these questions unanswered,” he said about the movie.

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