Stop the presses! Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. . . This review begins with the fascinating declaration that a Stephen King work has actually managed to transfer itself to the silver screen and not become a travesty falling in on itself! I speak most decisively of Apt Pupil, a novella by Mr. King (it appears in his book, Different Seasons), that works its old black magic, seducing and drawing us ever deeper into an inferno of uncalculated fright.
The Apt Pupil of the title is Todd Bowman (Brad Renfro), a spoiled, high achieving high school senior, who suspects that an elderly neighbour, Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), might just be a wanted Nazi criminal, Kurt Dussander. In a compression of time, we see Todd researching his quarry's background in the library after being introduced to the Holocaust and its horrors in a history class. On the thinnest of pretexts, he introduces himself to Denker via the excuse of giving him his paper, and in the next instance, is riding and roping him into submission with the revelation that he IS Dussander. If Dussander does not do what Todd wants, he will contact the proper authorities and turn over all the information he has managed to gather on him. The price of his silence? To recite to Bowman all the atrocities that he witnessed and used on his victims in various concentration camps.
Apt Pupil is another in a long line of psychological dramas that pits the hunter against the hunted, the fox and hound, a cat and mouse; with the ultimate contest pitting one highly intelligent human against another, and the ultimate prize being dominate control. Ian McKellen as Dussander etches a finely honed portrayal of the frumpy German gentleman who, when called upon to march for Todd in a Nazi officer's uniform, unleashes the hounds of hell and renews a sense of deja vu that he had put behind him years ago and forgotten. McKellen manages to parlay all his skills into a believable and calculated performance that bespeaks the evil that dwells within mankind. Dussander was a man who held the power of life and death in his hands and now he has been reduced to an existence in an arts and crafts bungalow in anywhere USA, killing only time as it volleys back the courtesy.
When Renfro and McKellan share the screen and attempt to checkmate each other with verbal affronts, they are moving in their complexity and texture to build a wall of defense that manages to be stormed until one becomes the eventual victor and the torch is passed on to new and extremely fertile territories. To say that Todd gets more than he ever bargained for would be a great understatement and it is a decision that will forever change the course of his life as he knows it. Renfro crafts a performance that runs the gamut from unsure, yet belligerent teenager, to a machine of steel that spews convictions as easily as night follows day. He manages to create a Frankenstein monster and in the process becomes one himself.
Director Bryan Singer does not have a great deal of experience under his belt, but with this production he has shown a perception to create a mood piece that germinates like an infectious rash. Singer keeps his cast in check and tightly reined, yet allows a certain degree of freedom to be attained by his two main characters. The dark colours that are sprinkled with visions of light could be construed as elements of good and evil and come courtesy of the palette of cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel. Art direction by Kathleen McKernin and set direction by Jennifer Herwitt, spoke of the decrepit straits and surroundings that had become Dussander's life as he sought anonymity from the rest of the world.
Apt Pupil is that rare movie that makes an appearance of unmeasured access to itself and leaves as quickly. This film is another in a long line of creations that appeared today and were gone tomorrow, but whose impact is felt long after the credits have rolled, blackness fills the screen and we go off to other pursuits. While the subject matter is not wholly in the context of pleasing, it is guaranteed to make one stop and think about the possibilities that could prevail if given half a chance.