Based on the Stephen King novella published in the 1982 collection Different Seasons, Apt Pupil concerns a 16-year-old high school student named Todd Bowen (Brad Renfro), who discovers his elderly neighbor is a Nazi war criminal. Todd’s fascination is birthed when his social studies class spends a week discussing the Holocaust. Through various public records, school databases, and fingerprint dusting, he realizes that the unassuming codger (Ian McKellen) down the road, who goes by “Arthur Denker,” is actually Kurt Dussander, a German officer who presided over the fictitious concentration camp at Pasin.
“I want to hear all about it,” Todd tells Dussander when he confronts him early in the movie. “The stories. Everything they were afraid to tell us in school. No one can tell it better than you.” Dussander is unnerved, but he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. After school, Todd diligently makes his way to the old man’s house, where he tells the boy stories of Jews being slaughtered by the hundreds in graphic detail. The most unsettling might be when he describes how the innocent were gassed, hopelessly climbing on top of each other in an attempt to reach the ceiling nozzles to somehow prevent their own imminent death.
Early into this unlikely “friendship,” Todd gifts the man a Nazi uniform and makes him don it while he orders him around his kitchen. Eventually, Todd’s grades begin to skid, and Dussander manipulates Todd’s concerned guidance counselor (David Schwimmer) into thinking he’s the boy’s grandfather, striking an ostensibly impossible agreement that Todd will go from nearly failing to graduate to getting straight-As in a matter of weeks.
Singer’s Apt Pupil is on the cusp of being gripping. It has all the pieces. A precocious performance from the young (and sadly gone-too-soon) Renfro strikes the appropriately impressionable chords. McKellen is evil personified, even in a weakened state which renders his movements more deliberate yet his presence weary. John Ottman pulls double duty in the editing and score department to create an environment of unease, perhaps hitting its apex during a third act sequence where The Jeffersons plays in a hospital room when Dussander regains consciousness — contrasting the happily innocent with the unsettling.
And yet, Brandon Boyce’s screenplay lets the entire project off easy. Apt Pupil doesn’t concretize a central idea nor any social commentary that renders it more than well-acted shock material. The premise is meant to make you squeamish, and the acting is good enough to entertain. But the film itself is all bluster and build-up to a third act climax that feels too unsure of itself to leave a lasting impact. Mark Pellington’s Arlington Road came to my mind while watching Apt Pupil. That was a pulpy approach to domestic terrorism and suburban paranoia, but even with its leaps in logic, the time period in which it was released in addition to the specificity of the writing made it feel diabolically plausible enough to embrace. It also had something to say about the public’s desire for motives and easily blamable villains in times of tragedy. Apt Pupil gets too wrapped up in the shock and the insulated consequences of its high school antihero to offer anything larger than a narrow look at an innocent teen’s corruption.
NOTE: As of this writing, Apt Pupil is available to stream on Tubi and Vudu, free of charge.
Starring: Brad Renfro, Ian McKellen, Bruce Davison, Elias Koteas, Ann Dowd, and David Schwimmer. Directed by: Bryan Singer.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!