It took me a little while to figure out why I didn't like 'Apt Pupil'.
At first, I was intrigued by its thoroughly original premise. A high
school student (Brad Renfro) digs up some information about one of his
elderly neighbors (Ian McKellen). He comes up with information that
proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the old man is a Nazi war
criminal who escaped punishment after World War II and now lives in
America. Renfro uses the information in his possession to essentially
blackmail his latest study. Study, you ask? Yes. Renfro's plan is to
have the old man tell him stories about the Holocaust, perhaps things
that aren't in any of the history books that the Nazi himself remembers.
The tables are turned on Renfro in a way that will land him in a lot of
trouble if the authorities find out he knew about the old Nazi and
didn't report it. There are some other plot twists that occur in the
film that are clever but they're only executed with about half the
strength they're capable of.
The film is directed by Bryan Singer ('The Usual Suspects') and Singer
has made a reasonably well crafted film that could have used a little
more thought in its writing (the screenplay is by Brandon Boyce based on
the novella by Stephen King) that it unfortunately relies too much in
some spots on the "schlock" value which is contained in many of Stephen
King's stories that are turned into films. These elements of the film
undermine and undercut the value of the film's principal psychological
subject matter which are memories of the Holocaust. The film,
unintentionally I'm sure but nevertheless cheapens the memory of this
historic injustice One scene has McKellen cradling a cat from his
backyard and bringing in to the house and trying to throw it into his
gas powered oven and another scene involves McKellen's torture and
murder of a derelict male prostitute (Elias Koteas) to an extent where
he involves Renfro in the crime. I still couldn't figure out what the
point of these two things were, significant to the film except to
illustrate that McKellen is shown to be an unrepentant Nazi, past
redemption and not seeming to care about it.
What's also upsetting is the way the adult characters are portrayed in
this film. Renfro's father (Bruce Davison) is made to look like an
uninformed stooge, unaware of his son's activities which I suppose no
one can really blame him for but the situation is still annoying to
watch at times and Renfro's high school guidance counselor (David
Schwimmer) is portrayed basically as a jack ass whose job it is to
socially guide the students under him and he has the table turned on him
by a high school kid to the extent where he will be in serious hot water
I saw so many directions this film could have gone in and while I don't
usually judge films for what they COULD have been rather than what they
are, the paths of choice about the way the subject matter is handled in
every aspect from start to finish are so obviously the wrong ones that
in some respects, a first year film student could have diagnosed a
The film's saving grace from getting a thoroughly negative review is the
totally convincing and chilling performance by Ian McKellen. His
performance as a former Nazi living with a soul that is no doubt damned
for eternity is so chilling because his character is one who would live
his life over again exactly the same way if given the chance without any
remorse for what he's done. McKellen could get an Oscar nomination for
this role but it may be a long shot.
'Apt Pupil' is not a disappointing film to a large extent but it is a
disappointing after thought when you consider what might have been.
Another missed opportunity on celluloid to push a film's subject matter
to memorable proportions.
Copyright © 2000 Walter Frith