Writer Stephen King has made a career of scaring us not with blood and guts but with cerebral psychological thrillers. Director Bryan Singer, with his The Usual Suspects, showed us that he’s aware of the squirmy, manipulative power of evil. Pair these two up, and you get the coolly brutal Apt Pupil.
Based on a King novella and directed by Singer, Apt Pupil takes on the evil that chillingly lurks in the ordinary world around us, and even more frightening, within us. Precocious Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro, from Telling Lies in America), only 16 years old, is on the verge of high school graduation, and at the top of his class to boot. History class has enthralled him with Nazism and the Holocaust — a subject that, it’s worth noting, many teenagers find themselves temporarily fascinated with, in a horrified way, without ever joining a white-supremacist group or adopting Nazi attitudes. All his extra reading on the subject allows him to recognize, from a history book, an old man in his neighborhood as a fugitive war criminal — Apt Pupil is set in 1984, permitting for a still-spry if aging Nazi.
Todd confronts Kurt Dussander (Sir Ian McKellen) — the boy has photographs and fingerprints lifted from the old man’s mailbox, evidence he threatens to turn over to the authorities unless Dussander tells him about his experiences during the war. Terrified of being found out, Dussander agrees. And as he was commandant of a concentration camp, he has lots to tell, like gruesome stories of exactly how people died in gas chambers. “I want to hear about it,” Todd says, almost gleefully, “everything they’re afraid to show us in school.”
A tired, haggard old man on the bus with his shopping cart. The high school valedictorian who plays basketball and baseball. Not the images we’ve come to accept as representations of evil. Yet even before he meets Dussander, Todd is wilier than your typical teen — as if the methodicalness with which he gathered his evidence isn’t convincing enough, he also arranges for it to be found in case something should happen to him at Dussander’s hands. As Todd subjects Dussander to further and further “indignities,” (Dussander’s word) — such as forcing the old man to wear a Nazi uniform and march about — it isn’t a specifically Nazi brand of evil that Todd succumbs to (in fact, he’s frightened when Dussander snaps a Nazi salute) but a more general nastiness, as he becomes a clever liar and manipulator. Just as Dussander could be suave and charming at a dinner with Todd’s parents and later torture a neighborhood cat not for fun but almost because he couldn’t not hurt the creature, Todd develops a secret, pained inner life for himself. Todd not only reawakens an evil that had been asleep within Dussander, he unwittingly awakens a similar depravity within himself.
Part of the horror of Apt Pupil is that such baseness is to be found in a regular, “we never thought it could happen here” suburb. The film’s high school corridors and comfortable upper-middle-class houses are suffused with warm, clean blue and gold light, which in another film would signify emotional security and physical safety. Here, it’s an ironic emphasis underlining the nightmare hidden in our “normal” world. And yet, there are hints of the danger out in the open. A cheery mural in the high school has a bold message and a fascist undertone: Dare to Be a Leader. When even a smart kid like Todd is so easily subverted, the dare is only in how one chooses to lead.
With the dynamic between Todd and Dussander the crux of the story, the success or failure of Apt Pupil falls with its stars, and McKellen and Renfro ensure that the film is entirely successful. McKellen, looking much older and more worn than he does in the later Gods and Monsters, is brilliant as Todd’s dark teacher, using his rediscovered malevolence as a revitalizing force, giving him a new spring in his step. Renfro — a younger, angrier John Cusack — gets better with every performance, and more than holds his own against the formidable McKellen.
With no reassuring resolution to offer at its end, Apt Pupil shows us that once the malign genie is out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back. This is a striking tale of the psychology of evil, and how easy it can be to pass it along to young minds.