starring Brad Renfro, Ian McKellen, Elias Koteas, David Schwimmer
screenplay by Brandon Boyce, based on the novella by Stephen King
directed by Bryan Singer
by Bill Chambers "No man is an island," goes the famous John Donne poem, effectively summarizing Apt Pupil's central themes. Though hardly a great film, Bryan Singer's ambitious adaptation of Stephen King's same-named novella* is nonetheless challenging, a bleak picture destined to be misunderstood by the masses. But perhaps the most shocking aspect of this inclement psychological thriller is that a major studio got behind it.
1984. Wonder-bred high school honours student Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) conducts his own extracurricular investigation of Kurt Dussander, a Nazi war criminal who fled Berlin in the 1960s and was never heard from again. Bowden suspects that Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), the lonely German senior citizen who lives nearby, is actually Dussander living under a pseudonym. Much research and dusting for fingerprints proves young Todd's theory correct, and Bowden strikes a deal with Dussander: in exchange for not revealing his identity, Dussander must satisfy the boy's intense curiosity by recounting the atrocities of the Holocaust from the point-of-view of its perpetrators. The stories he hears keep Todd up at night and haunt his daydreams, but like a bystander at a traffic accident, Todd's desire for the gory details overrides his revulsion.
Bowden revives in Dussander feelings dormant since the end of WWII. Goose-stepping in a mock uniform around his kitchen becomes a catharsis for the old man, first leading to his torture of a cat, then to the torment of his "student." Bowden also adopts or begins to indulge in vengeful qualities (he kills birds and doodles swastikas on his notebook), engaging the veteran in what becomes an endless game of one-upmanship. Dussander stands to lose his freedom and Bowden his credibility--in effect, his bought-and-paid-for future. All of this winds down to a fairly unpredictable (and unsettling) conclusion, one which requires leaps of faith from its audience yet is more gratifying than the source material's excessive climax.
Singer has yet to get Keyser Söze out of his system. His The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil are both about evil masquerading as innocence (Verbal's tics and Todd's golden-boy reputation are plausible ruses)--they showcase morally bankrupt anti-heroes for whom telling the truth is not an option if they are to achieve their goals. Apt Pupil is a richer film than The Usual Suspects, a movie famous and popular partly because its plot machinations were not germane to the outcome--there was no way you could see the ending coming, as it was all a hoodwink, anyway. Thankfully, Singer has gotten most of The Usual Suspects' film-schoolish theatrics out of his system. Some scenes in Apt Pupil feel overdirected and/or obvious (the dream sequences are extraneous), but Singer's handling of the violence, in particular, is boldly restrained for what amounts to a study of a murderer and his trainee.
McKellen and Renfro's performances contribute enormously to the overall success of the film. While most will focus on British stage vet McKellen's finely-tuned realization, I'd like to single out Renfro's daring work: he isn't afraid to play someone largely unappealing and cold-hearted. Refuting any naturally boyish charm is something many of his peers would shy away from. (Can you picture Kieran Culkin or Jonathan Taylor-Thomas in the same role?) Renfro was recently charged with possession of cocaine--I hope he doesn't continue down that path, because he has the potential for greatness.
As guidance counsellor Edward French, "Friend" David Schwimmer deserves special mention. French wants to be the parent to Todd that Todd's own well-to-do folks are not. (Todd, like many a modern teen--and only-child--has mom and dad wrapped around his pinky finger. The period setting only emphasizes that not much has changed.) French's sincerity throws the apt pupil's blackening-heart into even sharper relief. Yet one of the film's bigger questions--Are we born evil, or do we learn it?--might be answered in French, whose motives are ever-so-slightly dubious; no man is an island, indeed. With real moral ambiguity, Schwimmer portrays one of a trio of fascinating characters who make the unconventional Apt Pupil worth seeing. Originally published: October 25, 1998.
*The excellent collection of Stephen King stories called Different Seasons spawned not only Apt Pupil, but also The Shawshank Redemption (originally titled Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption) and Stand By Me (originally titled The Body).