'Apt Pupil': Evil sees, evil does

October 23, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Based on Stephen King's novella of the same name, "Apt Pupil" stars Brad Renfro as Todd Bowden, a straight-A high school student who becomes obsessed with the Holocaust, and who in his research uncovers a former Nazi (Ian McKellan) right in his own sunny California town.

Todd confronts the man, whose name is Kurt Dussander, but rather than turn him in to the "authorities" (in this case a globe-trotting Nazi hunter), he demands that Dussander tell him PTC everything about his odious enterprise. He even goes so far as to buy an authentic-looking German World War II uniform and forces Dussander to put it on.

Once costumed, Dussander comes to life as the jackbooted thug he once was and always has been. "Apt Pupil" proceeds to document the ways in which evil is transmitted, like an invisible virus, from teacher to student. Even the nerdy efforts of an earnest guidance counselor (well-played by a mustached David Schwimmer) can't keep Todd from indulging his fascination with his own dark side.

As famously convoluted and rife with red herrings as "The Usual Suspects" was, "Apt Pupil," director Bryan Singer's follow-up effort, is just as simple and straightforward. Singer does a good job of setting up Todd's middle class life and the insidious way Dussander creeps into it, and Renfro is quite good as the knowing teen-ager, who is too smart by half. Indeed, the most refreshing thing about the story is that it isn't about innocence corrupted as much as inherent corruption fixed and calcified.

But essentially "Apt Pupil" is about the banality of evil, a chestnut if ever there was one. Fascism isn't explored here as much as exploited for its convenience as an easy way to telegraph pure badness.

And, remember, the person relating this bit of wisdom isn't Hannah Arendt or even the Coen Brothers but Stephen King, whose penchant for gruesome ends even Singer can't wholly restrain. The cooking of a neighborhood cat is (thankfully) suggested rather than shown, but the bloody denouement of Dussander's encounter with a stranger (Elias Koteas) reverts to King-size grotesquerie.

"Apt Pupil" is a neat, if gloomy, cautionary tale that doesn't hold out much hope for the younger generation. Teen-agers may be (( attracted to its youth-centered story and Gothic elements, but let's hope they don't take the storytellers' pessimism too much to heart.

'Apt Pupil'

Starring Ian McKellan, Brad Renfro

Directed by Bryan Singer

Rated R (scenes of strong violence, language and brief sexuality)

Running time 100 minutes

Released by Tristar Pictures

Sun score ** 1/2

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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