Disturbed & Dangerous

Ian McKellen in Apt Pupil (1998)

Adapted from a Stephen King novel "Apt Pupil" is an unsurprisingly disturbing movie. It has a disturbing basis and concept and much of what happens is disturbing yet despite a disturbing performance from Ian McKellen and solid direction from Bryan Singer "Apt Pupil" never becomes more than being good. Why? Well to be honest it could be down the disturbing and unsettling basis of the story as it uses the Holocaust and a Nazi war criminal yet only uses them as the launch pad for other disturbing elements and there is something unsavoury about using the Holocaust as the launch pad for a different story. But having said that "Apt Pupil" achieves what it sets out to be and that is a disturbing movie which amongst many things makes you feel uncomfortable.

Having just studied the Holocaust at school Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro - Sleepers) becomes obsessed with the subject especially when he notices a similarity between a photo of a missing Nazi war criminal and Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen - Six Degrees of Separation) who lives nearby. Snooping around Todd discover that Denker is in fact Kurt Dussander the man from the photo but instead of turning him in blackmails him in to telling him stories of what it was like in the concentration camps. Unrepentant but not comfortable in being blackmailed Denker agrees but in doing so it not only brings out a dark side in Todd but also brings out Denker's dark side again.

Brad Renfro in Apt Pupil (1998)

So as already mentioned "Apt Pupil" uses the idea of a Nazi war criminal and the holocaust as the basis for a disturbing story and for me there is something simply unsavoury about doing such. Now in fairness it is done partly because we hear a graphic and disturbing account of what happened in the gas chambers which leaves you feeling sickened but also because for Denker he has no choice to do as he is told. It also means that when Todd starts to change and forces Denker to put on a Nazi outfit and march it also brings out the darker side in Denker's character and that is just as disturbing as we have an uncomfortable and ambiguous scene featuring a cat and an oven. These dark sides run in parallel as whilst we have something suggested about a cat we also have something suggested about a pigeon when Todd approaches it with a basketball.

But the thing is that whilst part of "Apt Pupil" is about the darker sides of both Todd and Denker, with a great final scene between Todd and his guidance councillor, it is also about he game of chess between the two men. Without giving too much away the story starts with Todd having the upper hand as he blackmails Denker with threats of turning him in but a little way down the line we see Denker turn the tables on Todd. It gives the movie an extra layer which again has a disturbing quality as the man and boy basically clash. But there is something missing because whilst all of this makes "Apt Pupil" a solid movie it lacks escalation almost playing out at the same level of disturbing from start to finish.

Where "Apt Pupil" does really work is in two performances and ironically neither of them are from Brad Renfro who as Todd is a central character, not that Renfro delivers a bad performance but for the most an ordinary one with a couple of chilling moments. Nope the main performance from Ian McKellen as Denker is first rate especially when having been forced to don a Nazi uniform something takes hold of him and an evilness comes out, leading to that memorable and unsettling cat scene. But it is the small performance from Michael Byrne as a hospital patient who as a survivor of the holocaust recognizes Denker, the sickening fear which takes grip of him is as disturbing as everything else.

What this all boils down to is that "Apt Pupil" is a disturbing movie from the concept to what happens right through to the performances especially from Ian McKellen as a Nazi war criminal. But it either lacks something or the basic idea is too unsavoury because it never becomes more than a good movie.

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