Apt Pupil is a very disturbing movie. This cerebral thriller is very much a monster movie. But, rather than the monsters being some outlandishly implausible creature from the fringes of science fiction, they are taken from the pages of history, and, indeed, from the very streets around you.
From the outside, Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) seems to be the perfect all-American kid. He’s top in his class, and a good athlete to boot. However, there’s a part of him which he allows no one else to see. After learning about the Holocaust in school, Todd becomes obsessed with it. Fed by an unknown hunger deep inside him, he devotes himself to learning everything he can about Hitler’s plan of genocide.
One day, Todd spots an old man, Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellan), riding the bus. It takes a while, but Todd recognizes the man: a Nazi war criminal. It seems that Kurt ran several concentration camps during World War II, then vanished. Todd takes the information he has which can prove Kurt’s true identity, and then confronts him with it. His intent isn’t to reveal the Nazi to the world, but to learn.
At first, Dussander is reluctant. But the monster within him still thrives, and as he recounts the horrors he inflicted to his young pupil, it reawakens. At the same time, Todd’s dark side is nurtured by Dussander’s tales. He begins to shut out the world as the evil within him grows.
On the surface, Apt Pupil may seem to be about the evils of the Holocaust, or Nazism. However, if you go in expecting the film to be about either of those two, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Instead, the film is an exploration of evil: evil in any form.
The two main characters are carefully concealed monsters. They seem perfectly normal: the kindly old man down the street, or the talented young high schooler. But in the right environment, they shed their skins to reveal their true monstrous selves. Dussander found his element among the horrors of Nazi Germany. But the atmosphere doesn’t have to be that extreme…true evil can exist anywhere, even in our own backyards.
Ian McKellan turns in a truly mesmerizing performance as the aging Nazi. He’s almost likable, in a way, until you realize the depths of evil in his soul: the horrors he has committed before, and has the potential to commit again. Next to him, many actors would pale…but Brad Renfro is able to stand his ground. His Todd Bowden at first seems rather flat, but there are layers to his character which are slowly revealed as the film progresses.
This is director Bryan Singer’s first film since the complex and entertaining The Usual Suspects. The storyline isn’t as convoluted here (which would have been a hard task), but he is able to create an eerily distinctive mood.
Although based on a novella by Stephen King, this is not your typical Stephen King movie. There is some violence (though toned down from the book), but the horror is primarily psychological. All in all, it makes for an unsettlingly good film.