movie review by
Gary Johnson

Apt Pupil

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Three years have passed since Bryan Singer first grabbed the attention of filmgoers and critics with his viciously witty The Usual Suspects. Now, he's back with another exercise in malevolence, called Apt Pupil, based upon a novella by Stephen King. This new movie doesn't have the Byzantine plot twists of The Usual Suspects. In comparison, the story is relatively straight forward . . . well, at least at first glance. One of the marvels of this movie is how it avoids any simple good vs. evil equations. In Apt Pupil, "evil" can reside next door. It can even reside in our own homes. It can take the form of an honor student and it can take the form of a kindly old man.

Brad Renfro (who also starred in The Client) stars as a straight-A high school student named Todd Bowden. Todd is particularly interested in World War II and the atrocities performed by the Nazis. In his own home town, he discovers a man who he believes to be a Nazi war criminal responsible for killing hundreds of men, women, and children at Auschwitz. One day after class, Todd drops by the home of Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellan) and tells him point blank what he suspects. Todd doesn't make idle accusations: he's got evidence. He has dusted Dussander's mail box for fingerprints and found over a dozen prints that match those of Dussander's military records. So now, with a malevolent gleam in his eyes, Todd insists that he'll turn over Dussander to the authorities--unless Dussander tells him about the war. "I want to hear about it ... everything they were afraid to tell us about in school," he says. "And then I'll leave you alone."

In exchange for detailed stories about war atrocities, Todd agrees to keep Dussander's past a secret. However, Todd soon takes advantage of the power he has over Dussander. In a truly unsettling scene, Todd gives a Nazi uniform to Dussander, forces him to put it on, and then forces Dussander to goose step. "You'll put this on because I want to see you in it!" he says. "Now move!" With devilish glee, he yells marching instructions--"RIGHT RIGHT RIGHT!"--while Dussander kicks up his knees and struggles to breathe. In this scene in particular, we began to understand that Todd's obsession is dangerous. And we also realize that Dussander must find a way out of this arrangement.

The filmmakers refuse to provide any psychological explanations for Todd's unhealthy interest in the horrors of German concentration camps. However, instead of becoming a liability, this refusal to provide a psychological background for Todd has the effect of making him an even more disturbing character. By not explaining him away, the evil that he represents remains at large--as a kind of malignant growth that inexplicably arises within a wholesome middle-class, suburban community.

With Todd placed in opposition to Kurt Dussander, the filmmakers compare Todd's fanaticism with Nazism itself and suggest the ease with which a normal-looking teenager (or a kindly old man) can become a murderer. This uneasiness that director Singer has captured so eloquently in Apt Pupil will probably also keep the film from garnering a large audience. Whereas most filmmakers typically provide their audiences with a safety valve for relieving the pressure--typically a pat psychological explanation that turns the "evil" into the understandable progression of a twisted mind--Apt Pupil refuses to let us get away that easily. In fact, the longer time we spend with Todd, the more twisted he becomes; however, at the same time, he resembles many people that we know. He's a little bit like the businessman who pushes a little too strong to secure a deal. He's a little bit like the politician who'll do anything to remain in office. He's a little bit like the lawyer who'll do anything to win a case. With a drive to succeed that overwhelms all other concerns, he'll do whatever it takes to get ahead. That's what makes Apt Pupil such a disturbing movie--it's insistence on aligning Nazism and fascism with forces at work in our own hometowns.

Ian McKellan gives a magnificent performance as Kurt Dussander, even allowing us to feel a degree of sympathy for him, particularly when Todd's passion begins to turn ugly. But then the movie turns back on us and allows Dussander's dormant evil impulses to surface again. We are left with no where to go for safety. McKellan will get most of the accolades, but Brad Renfro also delivers a remarkable performance. He gives Todd an intensity of character that quickly becomes self-destructive.

Most Stephen King books and stories usually end up becoming lousy movies. But not so this time. Apt Pupil is one of the best movies ever made based on a King story. Bryan Singer has fulfilled the promise of The Usual Suspects and delivered a near-masterpiece of modern-day horror.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]


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