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
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!
Copyright © 2000 Greg King