Apt Pupil -
rated - TEPID
Apt Pupil depends very heavily on the performance of its two stars: Ian
McKellen and Brad Renfro.
Ian McKellen plays Kurt Dussander, an ex Nazi (can there ever be an
ex-Nazi?). He's quietly hiding in American suburbia, numbing his mind
by drinking himself into oblivion and watching cartoons and gameshows
on TV. He is discovered by a bright young boy who happens to know quite
a lot about the Nazis - but not enough to satisfy him. The boy, Todd
(Brad Renfro) begins to spend time with this man, and ends by more than
matching him in potential for evil.
Again, as with 8MM and American History X, a fascinating idea. But as
with those films, the film does not quite live up to the premise.
McKellen certainly puts in an amazing performance as a man in his
eighties who is decaying inside and out (you feel you can almost smell
him!). Unfortunately, Brad Renfro is not up to the task of matching him
(what 16-year old could?). So the film lacks balance. To be sure,
Renfro has a certain quality of blankness that perfectly suits an
adolescent American boy - but who can connect with blankness?
What the film also lacks is a proper premise. What are these horrific
details which Brad would ruin his life to find out? How come they can't
be taught, or uncovered by assiduous research? Would a 16-year old boy
really prefer such things to sex? If so, what an amazing boy he'd be! I
wanted to know why he was like this. Was he:
(a) carefully taught;
(b) particularly susceptible;
(c) bad to begin with?
Unfortunately, we don't get to explore these fascinating questions.
Instead we get locked in a cellar with a cliché: Archie, played
by the usually-excellent Elias Koteas (Crash, 1996, The Thin Red Line,
1998). Koteas does his best, as does Michael Byrne, who makes a late
appearance as Ben Kramer. Byrne goes closest to Ian McKellan for acting
honours. He brightens up the last section of the film which was, I'm
afraid, in danger of losing me. Still McKellan also makes a stylish
exit, so the film managed - just- to sustain me til the end.
Musically, the film is a bit clichéed. We get lots of Wagner
(Tristan & Isolde ), and even Beethoven's 9th when a good report
card is received. Visually, Apt Pupil is more interesting. Bryan
Singer, a stylish director on the evidence of his first film, The Usual
Suspects, 1995), moves the camera well enough. One scene which stands
out in the memory is a scene involving a pigeon and a basketball - it's
very impressive. But then again there is a scene with a cat and an oven
which has to be seen to be believed!
The problem for me is with the whole premise of the film. At least in
8MM we saw something of the "snuff" film which was the centrepiece of
the plot. Here we get a few fragments of conversation between McKellen
and Renfro, but the director and writer seem too reverent about the
suffering in the concentration camps to give us a clear enough idea of
what all the fuss is about. It makes for a mystifying movie.