The film alternates between heavy-handed irony and a plunge into the grotesque.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

For half its length, "Apt Pupil" shapes up as a brilliant ordeal for the audience. After that, the film alternates between heavy-handed irony and a plunge into the grotesque. There is nothing wrong with this movie that couldn't have been fixed by a writer less determined to surpass his own excess at every turn. Unfortunately, since Stephen King wrote the story, that wasn't an option.

Ian McKellen is the good news. As Kurt Dussander, a man with a past, he has lived out his years in a big old house on a treelined street somewhere in suburban America. Down the road, a local high-school student is mesmerized by a history course that includes the Holocaust. Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) has discovered that Kurt Dussander was one of Hitler's hand-picked exterminators.

Armed with research that goes far beyond any school assignment, Todd knocks on Dussander's door and demands entry into his present life in order to learn about his past. He will, he says, destroy the evidence after Dussander describes in detail his role in the concentration camp.

The dramatic peak of the movie comes early, when Todd forces the old man to put on a Nazi uniform and then orders him to march. One look at Ian McKellen's eyes tells us what will happen. Resentment, then anger, then passion overwhelm him until the World War II officer stands before us in naked brutality. McKellen's portrait is chilling.

From this point on, the riveting horror of boy versus old man gets lost in a heavy-handed battle for the evidence. When Todd and Dussander are involved in the subtleties of a verbal power game, they are worthy opponents. They feint and jab, each knowing something the other wants to keep secret. When words are replaced by knives, picks, and shovels-with all the possibilities telegraphed in true B-movie style--we steel ourselves for violence and lose the exquisite pleasure of a dialogue that was beginning to explore obsession.

The contrast between Todd's daily suburban life and Dussander's dark old house is a weirdly effective reminder that two resoundingly different worlds can exist in the same neighborhood. When Todd's parents (Bruce Davison and Ann Dowd) insist on inviting his new friend for dinner, we watch two intelligent, caring people who still miss the road signs to their son's distress.

Director Bryan Singer cuts masterfully from one scene to another with clever manipulation of words and images, making it all the more regrettable that the script finally forces him down the tunnel of graphic horror. A movie that began as a fascinating study of the contagion of evil becomes an ordinary horror show.

Edward French (David Schwimmer), the guidance counselor blind to his student's obsession, is frightening proof that few of us are able to recognize genuine evil when it sneaks into our own lives. Credit Ian McKellen with raising powerful questions on that score, even as the movie self-destructs around him.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 497
Studio : Bad Hat Harry Productions
Rating : R
Running time : 1h51m

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