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Apt Pupil

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Apt Pupil

Starring: Ian Mckellen, Brad Renfro
Director: Bryan Singer
Rated: R
RunTime: 100 Minutes
Release Date: October 1998
Genres: Suspense, Thriller

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

To borrow a story that recently appeared in the New York Times magazine...A Jewish fellow had just purchased a Volkswagen. Horrified that he would buy a German car, especially from a company accused of using Jews as slave labor during the Holocaust, he was confronted by a buddy. "How could you do this? How could you possibly buy a German car?" His friend replied (with a nod to Socrates), "Would you buy a pair of Italian shoes?" "Yes," the accuser admitted. "How about a leather jacket from Spain?" "Without hesitation, he responded. "Well, you know what Spain did to the Jews during the Inquisition, and of course, there's the matter of how the Roman Empire treated the Hebrews." "I hadn't thought of that," said the denouncer. "So you see," the buyer concluded wiping a speck of dust from the windshield, "It's just a matter of time."

The war is over, but some memories do no die so quickly, and perhaps that's good. As the good people say, if we forget about the Holocaust, we're more likely to experience such a disaster again. Stephen King, who wrote the novella on which "Apt Pupil" is based, has not forgotten, as he spins a tension-filled tale of a 1940s calamity that has a visceral impact on a Los Angeles suburb in 1984. Transcribed to the screen from a script by Brandon Boyce, Brian Singer's ("The Usual Suspects") parable on the contagious nature of evil is affecting, though the adaptation falls short of being cathartic. Essentially a two-character play expanded to take in the ambiance of a high school and a wealth suburban neighborhood, "Apt Pupil" is a dark story with an appropriately somber conclusion, propitiously avoiding the uplifting ending so popular in movies centering on high-school kids. It features Ian McKellen, the great British actor, who adopts a believable German accent throughout, with young Brad Renfro doing a creditable job playing off his talent against that of a real pro. "Apt Pupil" deals with what happens when a bright 16-year-old discovers that a Nazi war criminal is living in his immediate neighborhood. If this were a conventional chase drama, most of the action would be centered on the pursuit of the offender by the L.A.P.D., the F.B.I. and perhaps the Mossad. What we get instead is an intricate psychological drama pitting the ability of a bright, ambitious, intensely curious boy against the skills of a man accustomed to command in a see-saw battle for control. In a greater sense, "Apt Pupil" digs beneath the civilized veneer of its two principals to expose the evil that lies dormant, ready to spring into activity when the moment is right. The Stephen King signature is explicit in one scene of pure horror involving the murder of a man who remains alive despite a serious knife wound and several thumps on the head with a shovel clutched by a strong and determined young man.

"Apt Pupil" opens in 1984 on a high-school history class which has just spent a week studying the Holocaust. Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) actually does recommended research on his own to further his knowledge of the event. After poring over pictures of Nazi commandants in the local library, he believes he spots a man who, despite the passage of forty years, strongly resembles one of the photographs he has looked over. Boldly introducing himself at the home of Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), he makes clear that he knows all about the old man's wartime activities at an infamous death camp, blackmailing him into revealing his first-hand knowledge of the gruesome enterprise. Over a period of several months he and this aged citizen have a profound effect on each other, the old man renewing his memories of what must have been the most exalted years of his life while he in turn arouses violent sensations in Todd that the boy never knew existed. As Todd continues to threaten the ex- Nazi with exposure, Denker plays his own trump card to intimidate the young man. Ultimately, the competition, fierce but without physical brutality, turns into an episode of violence that would not otherwise have taken place.

Bruce Davison in the role of Todd's dad and David Schwimmer as his high-school guidance counselor provide greater insight into the boy's social class, a privileged status which, combined with his academic ability, would have allowed him to pursue a successful, professional life. The particular advantage that Denker claims in order to keep Todd in line is contrived and not believable. Still, the audience comes away from this movie certain that the relationship savored by the two men will neither be forgotten by Todd, nor will it do other than to harm his career and his very future. As much as people of good will would like to bring every last Nazi war criminal to justice "Apt Pupil" is, at base, a warning that some truths are best left undisturbed. The tense, skillfully acted--but never didactic--film will be of particular value to adolescents who could not imagine being so personally involved in an incident with roots in what they probably consider ancient history.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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