"Apprentice to Murder" (selected theaters) has far too literal and prosaic a title for so poetic and eerie a film. If anything, this highly atmospheric, low-key thriller of the supernatural is too poetic for its own good. It's too bad that the film is not as compelling as its star, Donald Sutherland, in what is surely one of the most challenging roles of his career.
He plays the enigmatic John Reese, a practitioner of folk medicine, a kind of religious healer called a "pow-wow" doctor, living in a Pennsylvania village in the late 1920s. He befriends 16-year-old Billy Kelly (Chad Lowe), who is awed by Reese's seemingly miraculous powers. Although Reese insists that he's only God's instrument, there's no question that Billy, for better or worse, falls increasingly under his sway. The question is to what extent Reese is a force for good or for evil.
Unfortunately, the question is not posed with sufficient force and clarity by writers Alan Scott and Wesley Moore or by Canadian director R. L. Thomas, who made the awkward but nevertheless frightening religious cult expose "Ticket to Heaven." As before, Thomas is better with actors than with telling a story. Sutherland may rightly come across as a tantalizing enigma, but the film itself seems finally more elusive than ambiguous. In short, the film makers have failed to pull off their ending, leaving us uncertain as to whether or not it's meant to be left open.
Yet the film's high aspiration is to be admired. Far from being an exploitation picture, it is essentially a mood piece that effectively captures a sense of the timelessness of rural life, thanks to a large extent to cameraman Kelvin Pike's painterly images and the lovely score by Charles Gross.
Inspired by an actual incident that occurred in a little town near York, Pa., in 1928, "Apprentice to Murder" was in fact filmed entirely in Norway.
Although more mountainous, the Norwegian countryside passes for the beautiful farming regions outside York more convincingly than one would have ever expected. (Less successful is the attempt to have an old, unidentified Norwegian city stand in for Philadelphia.)
That Billy, so well played by the young Lowe, is meant to seem caught between Reese and his own, somewhat older girlfriend (Mia Sara) seems contrived, especially since she and Billy are having an affair. They seem utterly without any qualms about it, which is unlikely for the time and place, a vaguely Amish-looking and decidedly religious community. There's no question that "Apprentice to Murder" (rated PG-13 because it's too intense for small children) has its moments, but they don't add up to a fully satisfying film.
'APPRENTICE TO MURDER'
A New World Pictures release of a Hot International A.S. production. Executive producer Michael Jay Rauch. Producer Howard K. Grossman. Director R. L. Thomas. Screenplay Alan Scott, Wesley Moore. Camera Kelvin Pike. Music Charles Gross. Associate producer Michael R. Haley. Production designer Gregory Bolton. Costumes Elizabeth Ann Seley. Stunt coordinator Mark Boyle. Film editor Patrick McMahon. With Donald Sutherland, Chad Lowe, Mia Sara, Knut Husebo, Rutanya Alda, Eddie Jones, Mark Burton, Adrian Sparks, Tiger Haynes, Minnie Gentry.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).