Directed by: Bryan Singer
Written by: Brandon Boyce
Starring: Ian McKellen, Brad Renfro, David Schwimmer, Bruce Davidson, Ann Dowd
Evil begets evil in some of the strangest and sadistic ways in the uncomfortable Apt Pupil. A film so wrapped up in trying to be edgy that it fails to round out the characters and the circumstances provided by the source material it attempted to adapt.
After a history lesson on the Nazi occupation, Todd (Brad Renfro) becomes fixated with the pain and damage the hateful group inflicted on the Jewish people. He studies this movement outside of class and does so in such detail that he recognizes an elderly man in the neighborhood to be a former Nazi leader. Todd introduces himself to Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen) and blackmails him to describe all of the death in detail or he’ll expose the old man’s identity.
I should have a review series of Stephen King adaptations my wife makes me watch with her after she finishes reading them. It was against my own will to watch the film, especially seeing who directed the feature, but here we are with a lackluster story that omits many key aspects of the text, as my wife would attest. The film also has no interest in having any sort of ideas of what this story should present, especially with how it simmers down the true ugliness of the character, Todd.
The narrative follows him in his journey to manipulate everyone for his own gain. From his parents, teachers, guidance counselor, and especially the elderly Dussander. He knows of the awful actions and orders given by the man during his time as a Nazi leader and makes it clear that giving away his identity will cause major harm. Dussander knows this very well and plays along with Todd’s game by describing, in detail, all of the pain he caused and how it felt. The description of Dussander’s feelings when causing all of the harm seemed to be of most interest to Todd, in a sick perverted way. As my wife states, the text gets much more graphic in the pleasure Todd gets from hearing of the pain and suffering by the Jewish people, but the narrative feature decided to tone it down. The game between the two even gets to the point where Todd makes the old man dress up in a Nazi uniform for his enjoyment. They constantly seek leverage on one another, and the manipulation continues to build on each other.
Unfortunately, that’s as far as the film goes with having anything remotely interesting to say, as any interaction Todd has with anyone else is painful to watch. It shows a kid who definitely has killed multiple squirrels just for fun. No real context comes from his obsessions with Jewish pain, but it’s the only thing pulling the narrative forward in any way. Instead, you have moments of Todd being too intense while playing basketball with his friends in a way that reeks of the 1990s. In a show of how edgy and dark Todd turns, he throws the basketball too hard at the basket. Cool. For me, it came down to not buying Brad Renfro’s performance as Todd. The moments where the audience should have fear or concern for the young lad’s development just left me laughing about the absurdity of his behavior.
It doesn’t take away from Ian McKellen giving a truly vile performance as Dussander. He typically does not portray these types of characters and you can tell he relishes this opportunity. He goes from being a Nazi leader in this film to a Holocaust survivor in X-Men only two years later. Everything about the character of Dussander manifests from the balance of being a weak old man and the audience needing to reconcile the horrible pain he’s caused. Throughout the story, it appears he tries to live down his past by living quietly and falls torment to Todd’s insistence that he go back down memory lane. However, Dussander enjoys the game as well as it appears going through these stories revitalizes his reprehensible behavior to cause harm to those he sees as lesser than.
Ultimately, Apt Pupil takes a truly harrowing Stephen King story and sanitizes it in a way that takes any of the bite. It makes the characters more passive rather than enacting actions that prove them to be truly heinous people. The game between Todd and Dussander gets messy when it spills out to other people, but it felt so muted by the end that I found myself not caring at all. The only reason to ever watch this film would be to see Ian McKellen give a rather nasty performance, but everything else feels middling and rightfully has become yet another forgotten Stephen King adaptation.