16-year-old high school senior Todd (Brad Renfro) has a lot going on in his life. His parents bother him a whole lot, what with their rich ways, his friends all want him to go out, party, drink, and do sexual things, and his grades have to be constantly on the up-and-up, or else he’ll lose his scholarships. But for some odd reason, Todd has an obsession with Nazis, which is why when he finds out that a former Nazi death-camp officer lives around him, he can’t help but talk to the guy. While the former officer, Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), initially doesn’t want to be bothered with this boy’s childish claims, eventually, he gets blackmailed into doing everything that Todd asks. At first, Todd just wants to hear disturbing, overly graphic stories about the concentration camps, but after awhile, it starts to turn more severe. Todd wants him to start doing more and more evil things, which eventually leads Dussander to teaching little Todd a few things about his own heart and soul that may be a little darker than the kid is able to admit to and accept.
Honestly, a part of me is still shocked that this movie ever got made, or for that matter, got the budget that it did. Although I’m just speculating, I imagine that studios felt as if Bryan Singer have given them a big enough hit with the Usual Suspects, that, regardless of the controversial subject material, they were willing to shell out some money for Singer to work and play around with. Sure, this movie could definitely be made today, but given the budget, the stars in it and the wide release, it’s a surprise that we got to see Apt Pupil in 1998, if at all before Y2K.
That said, being risky and downright ballsy doesn’t always make your movie “good”.
What Singer does and does well, is that he doesn’t shy away from the bleakness of this material. If having a 16-year-old blackmail an aging, nearly 80-year-old former Nazi officer, wasn’t off-putting enough, the movie then delves into each one of their psyche’s and own issues with life, love and morality, without pulling back. Meaning, yes, cats are thrown in ovens, injured birds are killed, school advisers are threatened, and homeless people are murdered.
So yeah, it gets pretty dark, pretty quick and I’ve got to give Singer a lot of respect for not shying away. He could have easily backed down and away from the dark and heavy subject material when producers started breathing down his neck, but nope, Singer pulls through. He allows for these characters to show their true, darker sides, without ever making either one out to be considered “heroes”, or “sympathetic”.
And yes, with that said, the cast is pretty solid, too.
Even though we’re going on eight years since we lost him, it’s still tragic that Brad Renfro isn’t around anymore. As the young and brash Todd, Renfro plays both sides of this character very well; while he’s still got plenty of power and control over this older man, he’s still a naive, sometimes idiotic kid who doesn’t always control his emotions, nor know how to think things through perfectly. Despite the premise seeming a bit silly, Renfro’s portrayal of Todd makes you believe that a kid like this would actually go through all of the appropriate steps to ensure that he’s got a strong hold over this guy.
But what’s interesting about Todd the most, is that when the tides change for the characters, Todd himself continues to become more and more of a child. This is when Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Kurt Dussander really comes into play and works so perfectly – not just for this character, but for this movie. While he’s most definitely an evil and despicable human being, for some reason, it’s kind of hard not to sympathize with the guy. Sure, he used to kill thousands and thousands of Jews, ran away and hid from war crimes he would have definitely been convicted of, but the fact that he’s being terrorized by this darn kid, all of these years later, against his will and without a leg to stand on, is kind of sad. McKellen is great at playing these kind of snarly, slightly mean tragic figures and here, he really gets a chance to shine and show people why he was the perfect choice to play Magneto.
Not that we needed much convincing in the first place.
But regardless, one of the biggest problems with Apt Pupil is that it doesn’t really do anything with these dark characters or themes. What Singer does do is show us just how far and willing these two characters are able to go to the deepest, darkest pits of hell, just to keep themselves safe, but that doesn’t really translate to being suspenseful, or tense. After awhile, it just seems like there’s a bunch of slightly detestable characters, doing things to save their asses, but there’s not much to them other than that.
If Singer wanted to make this a brooding and small character study, it probably would have worked; he wouldn’t have had to make this like a thriller, where there’s supposed to be a conflict and story to hold everything together. But considering that the movie is very much a thriller, it doesn’t quite work. The characters don’t have many other lights to them than just what’s presented on the surface and there’s nothing really compelling to just sitting by and watching them poke around and prod with other people, as well as themselves.
Still, it doesn’t matter. Singer got the X-Men job and the world would never be the same again. So yeah, there’s at least some good to come out of this.
Consensus: Singer does the dark characters right in Apt Pupil, however, the plot doesn’t always come together to make a fully compelling flick.
5.5 / 10