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'Apt Pupil' Looks at Seductive Power of the Face of Evil

Movie review: Bryan Singer's film about a former Nazi and the youth who uncovers him, from a Stephen King work, gives viewers little quarter.

October 23, 1998|JACK MATHEWS | FOR THE TIMES

Adapted from a Stephen King novella, and staged like a two-character David Mamet play, Bryan Singer's "Apt Pupil" is a curious big-screen project, to be sure. Add in the subject matter, a teenage boy's obsession with an ex-Nazi's concentration camp reveries, and the experience is like staring at molecular evil through an electron microscope.

Ultimately, the view is too close for either comfort or scrutiny. The film leaves you no room to breathe, to step back and clear your mind with a quick whiff of humanity, and appreciate the point of the exercise. Nor is there enough psychological development of the boy's character to make his evolving relationship with the old man entirely convincing.

Nevertheless, the subject and the outstanding performances of Brad Renfro ("The Client") and Sir Ian McKellen give "Apt Pupil" a magnetic grip on the audience. Just as Renfro's Todd Bowden and McKellen's Kurt Dussander are attracted to and repulsed by each other, so are we.

The story is launched on a spectacular coincidence: the sighting of the ex-Nazi by 16-year-old Todd, who has just finished a week of Holocaust study in high school and become obsessed with the subject.

On a public bus, he recognizes Dussander, a scruffy loner in the neighborhood, from 40-year-old photos in the library. Todd then creates an airtight dossier on his concentration camp crimes and shows up at his door with an offer he can't refuse. If Dussander will tell Todd the detailed truth of his experiences, exactly what he did, to how many, and how it felt, Todd will not report him to Nazi hunters. And in case the old man gets any ideas, the evidence is stored in a safe deposit box.

And so, a lethal game of cat-and-mouse begins, with Dussander--at first cautious and reluctant, then with greater and greater, alcohol-fueled enthusiasm--recalling his role in the Final Solution. Though we are mercifully spared dramatizations of his deeds, Dussander reveals himself to have been a true patriot of the Third Reich, a dehumanized killing machine, and his foul soul is revived by the boy's encouragement.

*

The deeper the pair delve into Dussander's memories, the stronger their attraction and repulsion, and the more dangerous the game becomes--not only for them, but for anyone who tests their venom, including Todd's supportive, disbelieving principal (David Schwimmer), and the homeless man (Elias Koteas) who stalks Dussander, hoping for handouts.

Singer, who made a splash three years ago with the serpentine thriller "The Usual Suspects," directs with less certainty here. Working with a first script by Brandon Boyce, Singer attempts to blend the novella's more conventional thriller elements with the Holocaust issues, and the results are at best awkward, and at worst trivializing.

A scene showing Dussander relapsing into active duty while goose-stepping in a store-bought Nazi uniform sends chills directly up the spine, but one immediately following has him clumsily stuffing a live and vigorously uncooperative cat into his oven. It's played as black comedy, as if Dussander were a reformed vampire falling off the wagon. But considering that the cat represents the lives of 6 million slaughtered Jews, it's comedy of a truly odious sort.

Ultimately, "Apt Pupil" doesn't have the courage of its convictions. If it were truly concerned with the seductive power of evil, it would spend more time helping us understand what it is about Todd, and what it was about Dussander, that predisposed them to becoming monsters. As it is, and despite the riveting performances of Renfro and McKellen, we're left with classic horror-movie sociopaths, evil-doers without conscience, or much to say about the nature of evil.

* MPAA rating: R for scenes of strong violence, language and brief sexuality. Times guidelines: Inappropriate for young audiences, the movie could spark a discussion about the nature of hatred with older teens.

'Apt Pupil'

Ian McKellen: Kurt Dussander

Brad Renfro: Todd Bowden

David Schwimmer: Edward French

Elias Koteas: Archie

Bruce Davidson: Richard Bowden

Phoenix Pictures presents a Bad Hat Harry production. A TriStar release. Directed by Bryan Singer. Produced by Jane Hamsher, Don Murphy and Bryan Singer. Based on the novella by Stephen King. Screenplay by Brandon Boyce. Executive producer Tim Harbert. Co-producer Thomas DeSanto. Costume designer Louise Mingenbach. Director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel. Production designer Richard Hoover. Editor John Ottman. Music John Ottman. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

* Playing in general release around Southern California

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