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'Apt Pupil': Low Aspirations

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 1998

  Movie Critic

Apt Pupil
Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro star in "Apt Pupil." (Sony)

Bryan Singer
Ian McKellen;
Brad Renfro;
David Schwimmer;
Ann Dowd;
Bruce Davison
Running Time:
1 hour, 52 minutes
For profanity, nudity, sexual suggestiveness, drug use, stabbing and cruelty to animalse
The ever-watchable Sir Ian McKellen may be the best thing about "Apt Pupil," but the knight's heroics are still not enough to rescue this drama in distress.

Let's start with the dubious premise: A high school senior (Brad Renfro) stumbles upon a former Nazi war criminal (McKellen) living under an assumed name in Anytown, USA.

Todd Bowden, a preternaturally observant adolescent, accomplishes what professional Nazi-hunters on three continents have not been able to do by catching the chance resemblance between a now craggy, gray and bespectacled old man on a bus to a blurry, 40-year-old photo that the boy has found in his small-town library. (Naturally, it has a surprisingly comprehensive file on obscure perpetrators of World War II atrocities). Not only that, but the implausibly ingenious Todd ascertains once and for all that mild-mannered German recluse Arthur Denker is the heinous Kurt Dussander by comparing the codger's fingerprints-lifted off his mailbox-to a dossier that the teen sleuth has conveniently downloaded from the Internet.

But never mind all that. I suppose the plot-taken from a Stephen King novella-is no more far-fetched than any of King's other stories about bogymen, undead pets and demonic automobiles.

The difficult initial hook is not the only element that is hard to swallow. What motivates Todd is not a desire to expose Dussander, but to learn from him. The highly unusual young man uses his power to turn his pet Nazi in to the authorities as leverage to compel Dussander to tell gruesomely detailed war stories about such morbid logistics as how long it takes to gas a human, what happens to burning corpses and the recipe for turning people into soap.

It's hard enough to comprehend how someone could do these vile things, let alone how a child would be interested in hearing about it in such vivid detail. But Todd Bowden is no normal kid. That point is apparently made crystal clear when director Bryan Singer shows him turning down an offer of sex from his pliant classmate Becky (Heather McComb). This is obviously not your typical, red-blooded, all-American boy!

The title "Apt Pupil," you see, is really a misnomer. Like the underage killers in the news these days, Todd must already be something of a sociopath before he ever arrives at the feet of his horrible mentor. Soon Todd is dressing up Dussander in a surplus S.S. uniform and ordering the doddering alcoholic to goose-step like a marionette around his dingy kitchen, inviting you to wonder who is the real Nazi here. No sooner has the itchy wool of the costume rubbed Dussander's wrinkled flesh than it triggers some kind of traumatic memory, compelling him to capture a cat and try to stuff it in the oven. Simultaneously, Todd has discovered that he gets his thrills by bashing a pigeon to death with a basketball.

Despite what the ludicrous script requires of him, McKellen manages to eke out a poignant and hair-raising portrayal of a frail human being who once was and still is capable of inhuman acts. He wrings what little motivation he can from the thin story, and if his murderous impulses still remain something of a mystery at the end (as perhaps they must), the cat-and-mouse game Dussander plays with his novice admirer is believably suspenseful.

What is most frustrating about "Apt Pupil," however, is its failure to answer the very questions its story line begs about the nature and origins of evil: Are monsters born or made? "Apt Pupil" scares, to be sure, which is certainly one promise on which it delivers. But the film offers little insight into what it seems to be saying is essentially a mundane fact of life: When one devil leaves the world, there is always another one waiting just outside the door.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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