Neighborhood boy Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) discovers that an old man living on his block named Arthur Denker (Sir Ian Mackellan) is a Nazi war criminal. Bowden confronts Denker and offers him a deal: Bowden will not go to the authorities if Denker tells him stories of the concentration camps in World War II. Denker agrees and Bowden starts visiting him regularly. The more stories Bowden hears, the more it affects his personality.Written by
Casey Ward <email@example.com>
Stephen King's Apt Pupil, which is part of the novella collection Different Seasons (alongside the stories that inspired The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me), is a valid example of how you don't need things to be openly supernatural to have a good scary tale: a "human" incarnation of pure evil will do just as fine, and few images are more effective than those of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis during WWII.
Okay, minor correction: WWII has virtually nothing to do with this story, given it takes place in 1984. There is a Nazi involved, though: his name is Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), but he's been living quite peacefully in your average American neighborhood under the name Arthur Denker. However, a young boy named Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro from the Grisham-inspired The Client) manages to uncover the old man's real identity thanks to some thorough research and tells him about the discovery. The unexpected thing is, Todd doesn't want to report Dussander to the police. What he really wants is to learn everything - and he repeatedly emphasizes the word "everything" - about the former Nazi's work under Hitler's regime. Soon enough, the perverse bond between the two starts affecting the boy's grades and behavior, and Dussander isn't unaffected either: somewhere deep inside lies the old Nazi, and that part of his personality would like to come out and play.
The film's screenplay sticks quite faithfully to the basic idea of King's story and reproduces some of the most famous scenes verbatim (except for one moment of animal cruelty, which had to be softened), although a few subplots are excised, presumably for the sake of length and pace. The downside of that is an occasional lack of detail, especially when it comes to the development of Renfro's character. Director Bryan Singer, who obviously found himself in an uncomfortable position to begin with, having to live up to the success of The Usual Suspects, makes up for this flaw by constructing a genuinely tense and unnerving atmosphere, adding to the moral ambiguity by highlighting the homosexual subtext already present in the book (when Todd tells Dussander to f*ck himself, the latter replies: "My dear boy, can't you see? We're f*cking each other.").
Acting-wise, the limelight is inevitably placed on the leading duo, even if the supporting cast, which includes fine character actors like Bruce Davison and Elias Koteas, is quite strong (with the exception of David "Ross" Schwimmer, who isn't entirely at ease in a serious role). Renfro's performance is solid and captivating enough, but like his character he is completely overshadowed by the superb, unsettling McKellen, who inhabits the role of Dussander with his usual Shakespearean grandeur. Case in point: the unforgettable moment when the old man is forced to wear an old SS uniform Todd got his hands on. McKellen carries out the assignment with the dignity of a great tragic thespian, nailing the scene as one of the essential samples of his film career.
Apt Pupil distances itself from The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me in that it isn't as accomplished, most notably when it comes to the inevitable book/film comparison. Then again, it tells a much darker story, which asks the audience to root for a psychotic teenager and an aging Nazi. Flawed it may be, but it certainly is interesting (not to mention carried by an astounding McKellen). It is indeed a different season.
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