‘Reptile’ Ending Explained & Film Summary: Who Killed Summer Elswick? And Why?


Netflix 2023 film, Reptile is a mystery thriller by debutant director Grant Singer that surely has the stylistic and narrative touches of the works of David Fincher. The plot is centered around a veteran police detective, Tom Nichols, who has to investigate the mysterious murder of a real estate agent that took place inside a house she was supposed to be showing. The narrative has a slow and gradual appeal, almost peeling out the truth one layer after another over around 130 minutes. Overall, Reptile is quite fun to watch because of the style, even though it does not necessarily leave much food for thought.

Spoiler Alert

Plot Summary: What is the film about?

Centered around a real estate couple, Reptile begins with the two characters, Will Grady and his girlfriend, Summer Elswick, at one of the houses they are about to show to buyers soon. This house, in a neighborhood called Whitcomb, has evidently not been used for quite some time, as Summer seems to find evidence of rats, and later even a snake, having infested the place. As the day progresses, something seems very off between the couple, starting with Summer turning down Will’s advances inside the house. Soon, it becomes clear from Summer’s conversation with her best friend Renee that the woman has been cheating on Will. Perhaps as an extension of this failing relationship, the girlfriend does not visit an important public program of Will and his mother Camille’s real estate business.

Amidst such a strenuous time in the relationship, Summer returns to the Whitcomb house alone after a few days, since she is the agent the house has been assigned to. As she prepares the place, someone enters through the backdoor unannounced, and we do not see what happens with the woman next. Around the same time, Will is on the way to some other work when he decides to stop by the Whitcomb house to check on his girlfriend, since Summer had sent him a text. But what the man sees at the place shocks him massively, as he finds Summer lying dead in one of the rooms, with a long knife still stuck on the side of her body.

A third character, named Tom Nichols, is then introduced at a party where he goes along with his wife, Judy, to meet with a circle of close friends. Tom is evidently closest to Robert Allen, who is also an uncle in relation to Judy. As it turns out, Robert Allen is the captain of the local police department, and Tom Nichols is one of the detective officers in this department. It is Tom and his partner, Dan Cleary, who get called to investigate the murder at the house in Whitcomb. But Tom still hardly has any idea about the situation he steps into at the same time that he enters the Whitcomb house.

Who Is The Prime Suspect In The Murder Case?

After Tom and Dan begin their investigation, they swiftly come across certain clues, starting with the fact that a neighbor had actually seen a man walk into the house that afternoon. Upon questioning this neighbor further, the police learned that the man had a slight limp to his walk and that a car had also been seen driving away from the place after some time. Checking the security camera in the area, this car is first identified as a Buick LeSabre with a missing hubcap by Dan and the others. Later, the resourceful Judy corrects her husband and states that the car is actually a maroon Chrysler Imperial. Although this car is nowhere to be found, the police soon have two specific suspects that they learn about.

First is a man named Eli Phillips, who reaches the Grady house one night soon after Summer’s death and talks to Will in an indirectly threatening manner. Eli was also present outside the Whitcomb house on the day of the murder, as spotted by Tom, and it is soon revealed that the man has a past connection with the Grady family. Many years ago, Will and Camille bought over a piece of land for their business, despite the family living on the land not wanting to sell. The family was essentially forced out of their home, and Eli had been a child of this very family during this time. His father could not bear the guilt and sorrow of losing his family home, and as a result, the man committed suicide. Ever since then, or rather since growing up, Eli Phillips held Will and his mother responsible for his father’s death, maintaining that the Gradys were pure evil.

When questioned by the police, the eccentric Eli admits that he had indeed gone over to the Whitcomb house multiple times, but his intention was only to find out some way to expose Will Grady. Eli also clearly tells the police about his unusual habits, like keeping a police radio and using it for sheer entertainment. Later on, the man even creeps into Tom’s house in an extremely suspicious manner, leading to Judy holding him captive. However, Eli hands over a USB drive to the detective to prove his theories against the Grady family, and he seems harmless for the time being. It becomes a characteristic feature of Reptile that there are multiple suspects, to the point that everyone seems to be a suspect, and each of them is given some odd flaws that stick out.

The second initial suspect is Summer’s ex-husband, Sam Gifford. Although Summer and Will were in a relationship for over a year, the woman was still not divorced from her estranged husband, Sam. When the police look into the man’s records, they are astounded to find that Sam had a peculiar and creepy habit of cutting off locks of hair from women in public and storing them with him. This matches with the fact that a few strands of blond hair were found on Summer’s body that were not hers. Along with this, when the DNA results come back, it is revealed that Summer’s body had the remains of Sam’s sperm, meaning that the two had only recently gotten intimate. There is also the fact that Sam walks with a limp, making the police certain that it was he who had been seen by the neighbor. The ex-husband defends that the two were sleeping with each other in recent times, but he vehemently denies having killed her.

With the DNA match, the police issued an arrest warrant for Sam Gifford and rushed to his house to detain him. However, this goes terribly wrong when the man somehow gets hold of Dan’s service gun and starts shooting at the police. Tom shoots back in defense, and Sam is killed as a result. It seems like the police have successfully nailed the perpetrator, even though he could not be arrested. The police captain, Allen, wants to close the case and also award Tom a medal of valor, but the detective still has his own doubts. After Sam’s death, large quantities of drugs like heroin and cocaine were confiscated from his house, proving that the man was indeed a drug dealer. Tom believes that it was because of this that Sam started shooting, and not because he is guilty of the murder. Another important clue then comes in the form of a bite mark on Summer’s body that was initially unnoticed. It was clear that someone had bound her hands with rope and then bit them, meaning that it was most probably the perpetrator who had done it. But when a dental imprint match is done, it is not possible for the police to prove with certainty that Sam Gifford’s teeth match with the evidence, meaning that it is very much possible that Sam was actually not the murderer.

Who Was The Real Murderer Of Summer Elswick?

As the plot in Reptile progresses, viewers might get the feeling that the film intentionally convolutes matters only to build suspense, and it is perhaps not too wrong to think so. The matter with the dental imprint record, for example, does not provide any certain information. The clue of red paint on the woman’s hands, which leads Tom to a church with renovation work, also does not seem to add much. These details are understandably strewn across the narrative of Reptile to make things seem more realistic, but this garb is not always successfully maintained. Coming back to the identity of the murderer, the boyfriend, Will Grady, was initially a suspect for the police, but a lack of concrete evidence eliminated him from the list. However, when Tom goes over the information on the USB drive given to him by Eli and then does some investigating of his own, he seems to figure out the whole truth.

It was actually Will who had murdered his girlfriend Summer, but there were much more layers to it than just a jealous partner finding out about his girlfriend cheating on him. In reality, Tom and Camille had been running a scam, and Summer had been suffering because of this. The houses that Summer was selling were all being planted with drugs, because of which they were being seized as civil asset forfeiture. A mysterious company named White Fish Assets Inc. was then acquiring these houses for very cheap, and then Will Grady was once again selling them off. The man was reselling houses in a very detailed scam, and the police of the region were also heavily involved in this. Tom is shocked to find out that the White Fish Assets company was jointly owned by his very close police friend, Wally Finn, and Will Grady. Wally’s new business of private security, named Active Duty Security Consulting, is actually a front for the drug trade, which he seems to have been running for quite some time now. It was Wally who would plant the drugs inside the houses, enabling the whole scam.

Since these houses were not really being sold per se, Summer was also not getting her commission in reality, despite the records stating that she was making large sums. Towards the end, she had figured out the scam that her husband and mother-in-law were running, and Summer had threatened to speak out against it. There might also have been the additional fact that Summer was cheating on Will, and the boyfriend somehow got to know about it. As a result, Will drove up to the Whitcomb house that afternoon, stabbed his girlfriend to death, then left before returning after a few hours, when he claimed to have found her dead in the house. Earlier that day, the ex-husband, Sam Gifford, had also visited the house and had gotten intimate with Summer, which led to his DNA being found on her body. But when he left, the woman was still alive, and Will murdered her a little while later. The car that Will had used was now lying inside Captain Robert Allen’s garage in a repainted condition, but Tom noticed the actual maroon color of it inside the hood. The detective realizes that Allen is also in on this, and he goes to the very police chief of the department without knowing that the chief is also heavily involved in the scam.

What Does Tom Nichols Do In The End?

During Reptile‘s ending, Tom finally realizes that the chief and, in essence, the entire police force have been in on the scam and the drug trade, a horrible gunfight ensues, in which the police chief, Allen, and Wally get killed. While Tom survives with a bullet wound on his hand, he dials 911 but does not say anything. It seems like the man refuses to report the matter to the police and does not want to taint the names of his fallen colleagues who were so close to him only till a day or two earlier. But then, when we see the higher authorities, seemingly the FBI, arrest Will Grady, it seems like the man has reported to the higher authorities after all.

All of the high-level police officers knew about the scam that Grady was running, and they were all on the man’s payroll. This is why Allen was hiding the car, which was prime evidence in the case. Earlier, when a pack of drugs with particular packaging gets seized from Sam’s house and gets seized again from a different spot, it becomes clear that someone inside the police force was allowing the drugs to get out on the streets. Since Wally had been signing for the disposal based on the record of seizures, Tom understood that Wally was the one behind the drug trade. In fact, it seems like Wally was also working as a private henchman for Grady, as the police officer also seems to kill Eli Phillips after the latter was revealing too much to Tom. With regards to the fates of the various characters, Reptile remains quite vague and unclear, as we do not really see Eli being killed but being confronted by Will and Wally.

On the other hand, it is also very possible that Tom’s partner, Dan Cleary, was also involved in the scam, and he had intentionally allowed Sam Gifford to get hold of his gun. Had Sam been caught and interrogated, he could have revealed that Wally was a drug dealer since Sam must have known his rivals or associates (whichever Wally was) as a dealer himself. The police force desperately needed to stop this, so they arranged for a fake execution for Sam, making him open fire first so that the officers could easily kill him.

Tom was being awarded for this as well, even though the man kept questioning this stance, both morally and then literally. In many ways, Reptile is also about the change in Tom, as the man had earlier been involved in a corruption case as well. Before moving to this particular town, Tom was a police officer in a different state, where his colleagues were found guilty of similar drug-related corruption. Although the man had not been involved, he had also not complained or acted against the misdoings, despite knowing everything about them. It is because of this past, which still seems to stir Tom’s conscience, that he now decides to act against his colleagues, no matter how close he is to them. Allen is also family to him since he was Judy’s uncle, but this does not stop Tom from doing what is correct.

Even after the massacre, the man reports to the FBI and gets Will Grady finally arrested. Although Grady and his family did have connections with the local police, he will surely now be punished. The easiest way to prove the man as the murderer would be to match his dental imprints with those found on Summer’s hands, but Reptile does not feel it necessary to show the result, perhaps because Grady is obviously the killer. On the other side, Tom and Judy’s fate is also not really shown, and while the detective will face a stern investigation for the deaths of his police colleagues, the couple will most probably again move on to a new city, a new police department, and a new life. Unfortunately, changing skin like a reptile from time to time seems to be the only option for honest police detectives.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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