Based on a novella by Stephen King, Apt Pupil stars McKellen as Kurt Dussander, a Nazi war criminal who lives quietly and unrecognized in the United States for 40 years, until he is unmasked by Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), a 16-year-old, high-school student. Todd does not turn Dussander in to authorities, but rather blackmails him into describing the atrocities he committed at the death camps. "Boy, be careful -- you play with fire," Dussander warns him, and, indeed, how the young man is affected by his almost symbiotic relationship with the former SS commandant is at the heart of this unnerving tale.
Director Bryan Singer (1995's The Usual Suspects) excels at creating and sustaining tension, and in Apt Pupil the tension continually ebbs and flows. Both Seven (1995) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), arguably the two most gripping thrillers of this decade, relied in part on cat-and-mouse games between the killer and the hero/heroine to generate suspense. Apt Pupil tells a very different kind of story, and while it also involves two nominally antagonistic individuals, the suspense derives less from the interaction between them than from the psychological machinations that drive each character.
The picture is unimaginable without McKellen, an actor who doesn't so much play a role as inhabit it. Unlike The Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter, an attractive man of seductive wit and charm whom the audience can't help but like, Dussander is extremely ordinary and by all appearances quite harmless. That his banality and often jovial demeanor coexist with a coldly sadistic, utterly amoral mentality is doubly disturbing, because we all know people who seem innocuous. Yet who knows what really goes on inside them?
Singer also gets invaluable support from cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and editor-composer Ottman, who has worked with the director on all of his movies. Sigel bathes the film in rich, saturated colors. When we first see Dussander's house it is awash in yellow, with shafts of golden light filtering through the windows. Only on the most unconscious level do we realize that the crispness of the images is in sharp contrast to the murky nature of the deeds being depicted.
Ottman's score also plays against expectation to great effect. The opening credits appear over history-book photographs of the Holocaust and the faces of Hitler, Himmler, Goering, and others responsible for Nazi-related atrocities (including a shot of McKellen as a young Dussander), yet the music accompanying the images is lush and sweeping, with searing, achingly beautiful passages associated with Jewish religious compositions. The music is never obtrusive, yet throughout the film it adds an almost palpable layer of emotion and feeling.
Ottman may be the only artist working today who both edits pictures and composes music, and his skill in each arena is extraordinary. A composer first and foremost, he brings the musician's feel for rhythm and timing to his film-editing, generating an escalating sense of tension and suspense through crosscutting and clever juxtaposition of images. He and Singer make an unbeatable team.
Unfortunately the film has one glaring defect: the character of Todd. It is never established whether the boy is corrupted by exposure to Dussander or whether he is just a bad seed innately capable of barbarous acts and thus attracted to Dussander. The film's title suggests the former, but such a crucial point shouldn't be left to mere speculation, because it leaves the audience with no clear path to follow and no character to champion. Renfro, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Ethan Hawke, fails to compensate for what is clearly a weakness in the script. Such an egregious flaw would have proven fatal in a less engrossing film, but Apt Pupil manages to stay afloat.
In fact, watching the movie is like wading into the ocean and noticing that the water gets increasingly inky and foreboding the farther out you go. Worried that monsters may be lurking beneath the surface, you tell yourself you are being silly; monsters don't really exist. Apt Pupil reminds us that they do.
Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Brandon Boyce, from a novella by Stephen King. Starring Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro.