Retro Film Review: Apt Pupil (1998)

in #filmlast month


Stephen King built his literary reputation on the steady stream of immensely successful horror novels. Screen adaptations of those novels, just like in many similar cases, were far from successful. Few exceptions to that came from King's stories and novellas not belonging to horror genre. One of King's non-horror novellas was Apt Pupil and many expected a lot from its 1998 screen adaptation, directed by Bryan Singer.

Film starts in Los Angeles suburb in 1984. Todd Bowden (played by Brad Renfro) is a 16-year old high student with an excellent grades and great future. One day, after the lecture about Holocaust, he decides to spend all his free time researching that grim subject. The result of this research is surprising - it seems that Arthur Denker (played by Ian McKellen), elderly German immigrant who lives in his neighbourhood, happens to have striking resemblance with Kurt Dussander, notorious Nazi war criminal who never got caught. Todd gathers enough evidence to prove that Denker is actually Dussander. Instead of informing authorities, he confronts the old man and demands that he tells him "parts of Holocaust they don't teach at school". Old man reluctantly agrees and this only fuels Todd's morbid fascination even further - he tortures old man by forcing him to wear old Nazi uniforms. After a while, Dussander's stories begin to affect Todd - he starts having terrible nightmares and his school grades begin to slip. That gives opportunity for Dussander to turn tables on his tormentor.

The plot of Apt Pupil promised intriguing exploration of the darker sides of human nature. Using the most infamous example of man's inhumanity to man, Brandon Boyce's script tried to show how evil can lurk deep inside seemingly normal human beings and rear its ugly head under certain set of conditions. Unfortunately, the film managed to transform this potentially powerful drama into just another uninspired horror film. Main problem is in the way King misunderstood Holocaust and Nazism. For King and the authors of this film, macabre events of 1940s Europe are the result of few twisted individuals rather than complicated set of economic, political and cultural circumstances. The film argues that Nazis did what they did simply because they took pathological pleasure from their crimes. Singer suggests that in the scenes where Dussander, more than obviously aroused by the retelling of his past, tries to satisfy his murderous impulses on animals and homeless people. This simplistic view of evil results in bad characterisation of Todd - at the beginning, he is presented as bright young boy from perfect family; in the end, he turns into Nazi-like monster. The film doesn't give any explanation for this transformation. Apt Pupil reduces the real life phenomenon of "silent neighbours" – war criminals who escaped justice by taking new identities and living the rest of their lives as model citizens - to the basis for unconvincing thriller.

Real life, unlike Hollywood movies, doesn't compartmentalise people into easily recognisable categories, and that includes even the war criminals. Before the war many of them were educated, intelligent and professionally competent people; after the war nothing in their demeanour, lifestyle or even politics indicated that they could be capable of mass murder and systematic torture. This leads to the disturbing conclusion that under certain circumstances many, if not majority of, people are capable for such terrible acts. Authors of Apt Pupil didn't dare to confront the audience with this unpleasant idea, thus compromising their film.

Another of film's problems is apparent inability of Brad Renfro to convincingly portray young protagonist as dangerous psychopath. Renfro's lack of necessary acting abilities is underlined with the presence of Ian McKellen who plays Dussander much more convincingly. Renfro is also overshadowed by some supporting actors. One of them is Elias Koteas who very effectively plays a homeless man who would do anything for a beer.

Singer's direction represents something of a disappointment. The editing leaves a lot to be desired and many of the annoyingly "artsy" scenes only make the film overlong. The ending is of the film is the most disappointing, and the impression is not improved by the scene in which hospital patient quotes poetry. This lame attempt to inject some humanity and optimism in otherwise bleak story only destroys the credibility of Apt Pupil. This film is watchable, but it shows that the horrors from real history are sometimes beyond the reach of Hollywood film-makers.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on July 28th 2004)

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