Teen's Nazi curiosity not as unsettling as it ought to be
Adapted from a Stephen King novella -- one of his occasional deep and psychologically startling stories that offer more than the gore-bore books he cranks out habitually -- "Apt Pupil" is about a teenage boy who discovers that a reclusive neighbor is in fact a wanted Nazi fugitive who has been living incognito for 40 years.
But instead of turning him in, the kid's curiosity about World War II atrocities drives him to become something of a disciple to the old man, whose has spent decades suppressing a disturbing relish for his former life of torture and human liquidation.
Brad Renfro ("Sleepers") plays the somewhat reticent teenager, whose interest in the Aryan perspective on Holocaust history swiftly turns into his own form of perverted enjoyment at forcing horrible stories from his mentor by hanging the threat of exposure over him.
Superlative British thespian Ian McKellen ("Richard III," "Cold Comfort Farm," and the upcoming "Gods and Monsters") is perfectly cast as the reclusive, frayed war crimes escapee who slips all too easily into his grotesque dormant persona under the egging and blackmail of his pupil, then begins to turn the tables on the boy in an escalating succession of subjugating mind games.
Renfro ably plays the boy's transition from unsure meddler to skilled and dead-eyed tormentor. He withdraws from friends and family, his grades plummet and he begins to toy with dark, virulent desires.
He and McKellen both become something frightful at times, but still somehow "Apt Pupil" feels diluted and a little ineffective. All the elements for a properly daunting narrative are in ample supply, but it's just not as unsettling as it ought to be.
"Apt Pupil" is director Bryan Singer's first project since 1995's masterful "The Usual Suspect" and this picture has a blanched version the same kind of jarring discord that film had.
When the kid starts doodling in swastikas during a boring class, it sends the intended chills. In an effective daydream sequence Renfro finds himself transported from the shower in his high school gym to the gas chamber of a concentration camp, surrounded by emaciated prisoners. But the film comes up short on the kind of cerebral content that can really shake an audience.
We're present for only a few moments of the hours Renfro spends listening to ghastly memories under the Nazi's tutelage. We only hear bits and pieces of the disturbing stories that transform him, and what's more, we see very little of his immediate reaction to them. Is he appalled? Is he invigorated? It's never really clear. There's no give and take in their conversations.
I suspect Singer was given some very distinct boundaries to work within by TriStar pictures, which probably didn't want a controversy on their hands (evidenced by an extreme deviation from the novella's finale). The picture almost tippy-toes around its biggest issues.
With the help of his "Suspects" cinematographer (Newton Thomas Sigel), and John Ottoman, the man who both edited "Suspects" and composes its score, Singer gives this film a similarly ominous, reverberating foundation, but the result is a much more innocuous than any movie directly or indirectly about the Holocaust should be.
Instead of sending the audience home with something to think about, "Apt Pupil" just creeps you out a little and once you've left the theater, the feeling is gone.