Reviewed by: Brian A. Gross
Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) is a youngster with a macabre interest in the Nazis and their campaign of terror against the Jews during WWII. Through his extensive after-school research at the library he finds pictures and artifacts leading him to believe that his next door neighbor was an infamous member of the Third Reich. His true name is Dussander (Ian McKellan), living for years as Arthur Denker, and he was a guard at such legendary death camps as Auschewitz. Todd devises to blackmail him and gathers his fingerprints from his mailbox, takes clandestine pictures of him, and is then ready to combine it all in order to confront the old man.
He challenges Dussander with the evidence he has and forces the old Nazi to tell him about the death camps. Todd’s moral ambiguity and curiosity turns to moral rot as the nightmares of death keep haunting him and he becomes consumed with the stories. What began as a morbid fascination of “what it felt like” to hurt, maim and kill became too strong a power for him, when power was what his adolescent mind craved. So the power he lorded was the only he knew, that of his over Dussander. By making him tell his awful stories to buying him an authentic German uniform and having him march in it. What he didn’t count on was the feelings resurfacing in the dormant heart of his German teacher.
Ian McKellan gives an excellent, steady performance and facially expresses the glee that is rising in his heart recalling his life as a sordid youth. He complains at first but is shown later dressing up in his new uniform and parading in front of a mirror. The alcoholic ex-Nazi whose only joy is the memories his “student” is pulling out of him from a past of unspeakable evil. It is a joy to watch a scene at Todd’s house for dinner; he sits with the Bowden family and when Todd states his boredom, Dussander takes up for him:
“It is a privilege of boys to be truthful.”
“A privilege that men have to sometimes give up.”
He soon presses the boundaries, from his memory to present day, and impersonates Todd’s grandfather at school one day. Posing as the doting and helpful elder as Todd sits agape at the older man’s cunning manipulation. And since Todd has neglected his schoolwork to the point of failing, Dussander serves his own purpose by pledging Todd’s devotion in studying his way back on track for graduation and, consequently, getting him out of his kitchen every day. When Todd realizes the depth of Dussander’s manipulation he relies on a handy obscenity, “go [expletive deleted] yourself!” Dussander laughs and replies “Don’t you realize boy, we are [expletive deleted] each other?”
Though I am a big fan of Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” (one of the best films of the ’90s) his choice in “Apt Pupil” as a follow-up is questionable. I must confess I have never read the King novella but from all accounts first-time screenwriter Brandon Boyce does cut the bloodiness of several scenes and has changed the ending that King wrote. As it stands the ending is pretty weak and suffers from the lack of Brad Renfro’s acting. A stronger more suited actor (like a young Edward Norton or Kiefer Sutherland) could have left the viewers with the lingering image of Todd Bowden far longer.
Editor’s note: Objectionable content includes many violent scenes, over 2 dozen obscenities, about a dozen profanities, some sexual references, full male frontal and rear nudity, and an acceptance of drinking and smoking.