Release: 1998, Sony
Starring: Ian McKellen, Brad Renfro
Director: Bryan Singer
MPAA Rating: [R] violence, language, sexuality
A teenage boy's (Renfro) unhealthy obsession with the war crimes of a former Nazi (McKellen) uncovers the dark side of human nature. Based upon the novella by Stephen King.
Generally, Stephen King's best stories are those in which the monster is a twisted virtue of humanity (e.g. the obsession in Misery, the greed and lust in Needful Things) rather than a demonic boogeyman (e.g. Pennywise the Clown in It). Apt Pupil is a fine example of this theorem, as it boasts some of the most disturbing characters ever found in a film based on one of King's works--all without resorting to the supernatural.
Apt Pupil has the virtue of being one of the only mainstream movies of the year that is truly...well, disturbing. And it achieves that through a malicious subtlety exemplified by strong performances. Ian McKellen is quietly chilling as Kurt Dussander, a former Nazi who has changed his name to Arthur Denker and assimilated into contemporary society. He's the first and most obvious villain, but more unnerving than his war crimes is how easily a person with such a monstrous past can slip into the role of your average next door neighbor.
Then there's Brad Renfro as a nosy kid who wants to learn "everything they're afraid to show in school." When he unearths proof of Denker's former identity, he blackmails the old man into describing the inhumanity the Nazis perpetrated, all in crystal detail. Renfro imbues the role with a perfect mix of curiosity and sadism, and in many ways his character becomes the greater of the two evils. As his interest grows into obsession, he unleashes a Pandora's Box of information that was best taken to the grave. The audience, then, is forced to question which of the two characters is more unforgivable: the man who literally has the blood on his hands, or the boy that wants to relive it all with unnerving zeal.
Imagery also delivers the chills without going overboard. There is something otherworldly in the way Denker appears dressed in full Nazi attire. The image itself opens a dark chapter in human history. Director Bryan Singer has worked out an impressive follow-up to his previous effort, The Usual Suspects.
Regular readers of King's work will undoubtedly recognize similar elements from his other stories. The shower scene that raised so much trouble for the studio is all too reminiscent of the shower scene in It and even Carrie. Additionally, I've never been impressed with the dialogue King assigns for most of his non-adult characters--there's always something strangely forced about it all. The basis of the text is translated into the cinematic version, and comes through as mildly stereotypical characterization. As such, the film had to work that much harder to make itself believable (and trust me, were the performances any less, the script may have failed miserably).
The violence in King's text has been toned down.
David Schwimmer, as usual, plays another Ross-like character.