Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Bryan Singer
Stars: Ian McKellen, Brad Renfro, Bruce Davison, Elias Koteas, Joe Morton, Joshua Jackson, David Schwimmer, Jan Triska, Michael Byrne, Heather McComb, Ann Dowd.
There were high expectations for Bryan Singer’s follow up to his Oscar winning crime thriller The Usual Suspects (1995), and Apt Pupil doesn’t disappoint. Apt Pupil is the third story from Stephen King’s Different Seasons anthology to be filmed, following both Stand By Me and the brilliant The Shawshank Redemption. This is a superb and unsettling psychological thriller, that again shows how good a writer King is when he moves away from straight horror to explore the darker potential of human nature.
The film deals not only with the knowledge that one generation passes to the next, but also the attitudes, prejudices and hatred. It’s also a tale about the loss of innocence, and the seductive, persuasive power of evil.
Sixteen year old school boy Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro, from Sleepers, etc) is a brilliant student with a healthy appetite for knowledge. But after he discovers that an elderly man in his neighbourhood is actually a Nazi war criminal, he becomes consumed with sharing his experiences of the war and the concentration camps. A symbiotic relationship gradually develops between the two as they realise that they need to trust each other with their terrible secrets. Todd’s curiosity eventually reawakens an old blood lust in Dussander (played to perfection by Ian McKellen). Events soon spiral out of control, as Dussander’s true identity is revealed.
McKellen’s role is not all that far removed from the power hungry fascist he played in the brilliant Richard III. He delivers a superbly chilling performance as Dussander, but he also manages to bring some depth to the role, making the character far more complex. At times he even manages to elicit some sympathy for Dussander, who is smooth and charming on the surface. In his best and biggest role to date, Renfro is also superb, deftly suggesting a mix of youthful innocence and guile and evil. We witness his frightening transformation from wholesome, clean cut all-American school kid as he loses his sense of perspective. As the final scene demonstrates, Todd is indeed an apt pupil who has learnt his lessons from Dussander only too well.
This is a creepy, tense and unnerving little thriller. The tension slowly builds under Singer’s tight and assured direction. The supporting cast, which includes Bruce Davison, Joshua Jackson and Friends’ star David Schwimmer, are all good.
Apt Pupil reaches our shores almost a year after it was the centre of some controversy in the States. A number of concerned, angry parents sued the producers over the treatment of their children during the shooting of certain scenes. Consequently, the film features probably the most controversial shower scene since Psycho. However, the outcry doesn’t seem warranted, given the brief screen time the powerful and evocative scene occupies. But, as they say in this business, any publicity is good publicity!