Apt Pupil (1998)
Directed by Bryan Singer
Cast: Brad Renfro, Ian McKellen, Bruce Davison, Ann Dowd, David Schwimmer, Elias Koteas, Joshua Jackson, Heather McComb.
1998 112 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, and brief nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 25, 1998.
Bryan Singer made a big splash in 1995 with his surprising, critically-acclaimed, "The Usual Suspects," and after three years of hiatus, he is back with his sophomore effort, "Apt Pupil," based on a Stephen King novella, but I think his look has quickly run out.
The film is about an intelligent, but cold-hearted 16-year-old senior, Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) who becomes interested in the Holocaust after he studies it in school, and discovers that a Nazi from the concentration camps in WWII is living in his own hometown under an alias name. That man is Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), whom Todd blackmails, telling him that he will turn him into the police if he does not do as he says. As Kurt begins to tell him horrific stories of killing the Jews and his experiences in the camps, Todd begins to become obsessed with it, starts to slack off in school, in which he was previously at the top of his class, and begins to look more and more likely of being capable of murder himself.
"Apt Pupil," has an intriguing story, and there are a few suspenseful moments that pop up every once in a while, but it is at the screenplay level that the film fails. There is no attempt at all to develop any of the supporting characters, and so they all come off as being underused and one-dimensional. Even Todd's parents, played by Bruce Davison and Ann Dowd, only appear in one scene in the first half, and the film would have you believe that Todd is practically living at Kurt's house. Todd's friend (Joshua Jackson) is also a wasted character, as is his potential girlfriend (Heather McComb). And so, because of this, what we have is basically a two-character film, which would be okay if there hadn't been so many open-ended subplots.
Renfro and McKellen are nothing short of spectacular in the film. Renfro especially could not have been any better, and he is thoroughly believable throughout, although his character is completely unlikable. They both work well together, and the dialogue between them is often well-written.
One subplot that I did kind of like, even though it also was not developed very well, concerns Todd's guidance counselor at school (David Shwimmer), that at first does not seem to be of much importance to the story until the climactic moments. Schwimmer usually plays the same character ("Friends," "The Pallbearer"), but here he is completely different, and shows that he is capable of actually having a lot of range as an actor.
But with all things considered, "Apt Pupil" just isn't a very well thought-out picture. The screenplay obviously should have went through a few more drafts, and it also should have decided what type of genre it wanted to fall into. Did it want to be a psychological drama, or a horror movie (as some scenes would have you believe, including a senseless murder in the last act)? Singer proved he was a talented director with "The Usual Suspects," but "Apt Pupil" is a highly inferior film in almost every way.
©1998 by Dustin Putman