[Screen It]


(1998) (Brad Renfro, Ian McKellen) (R)

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Drama: An unlikely and often wary relationship forms when a sixteen-year-old high school student discovers a former Nazi SS officer living in his neighborhood and blackmails him into telling about his past.
1n 1984, sixteen-year-old Todd Bowden (BRAD RENFRO) is a typical high school student who excels at both his studies and sports. After a week of studying the Holocaust and Nazism, Todd has a newfound appetite for more information, especially of things they won't teach in class, and thus heads to the library to gain more insight into what really happened.

One day on the way home, he spots an old man (IAN McKELLEN) who, despite the intervening years, looks just like Kurt Dussander, a former Nazi SS officer still wanted for the atrocities he committed back then. After some quick detective work, Todd approaches Dussander, who's living under the assumed name of Arthur Denker, with an ultimatum. Having compared photos and recently attained fingerprints, Todd blackmails the old man into telling him everything about the past lest he turn him in to the authorities.

Dussander reluctantly agrees and the two soon enter an unlikely and dangerous alliance. While Dussander is tentative to have this boy dredge up his past, the evil inside him begins to percolate toward the surface once again. Meanwhile, Todd has told his parents, Richard (BRUCE DAVISON) and Monica (ANN DOWD) that he's simply reading letters to the old man, when in fact he's actually becoming obsessed with the power and horror that occurred nearly four decades earlier.

This begins to put a strain on his friendships and relationships, and as his grades begin to falter -- raising the concern of his guidance counselor, Edward French (DAVID SCHWIMMER) -- Todd also discovers that Dussander has spun things around back into his control. As the two continue their psychological match game of wits, it's only a matter of time before the evil lurking in both erupts into violence.

If they're fans of Stephen King stories, overall psychological/horror films, or of Brad Renfro ("The Client"), they just might.
For scenes of strong violence, language and brief sexuality.
  • BRAD RENFRO plays a sixteen-year-old high school student who becomes obsessed with WWII Nazi power and the atrocities performed then. As a result, he loses interest in his peers, his grades falter, he cusses a lot, and becomes decidedly more malevolent and dangerous.
  • IAN McKELLEN plays a former Nazi SS officer who's been in hiding for nearly four decades under an assumed name and many bottles of bourbon. Having committed many atrocities back then, those feelings are rekindled by Todd's actions and he becomes dangerous once again.


    OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
    Although legendary horror author Stephen King is best known for his classic horror novels such as "Carrie," "The Shining," and "Cujo," the cinematic adaptions of such tales, more often than not, haven't been quite quite up to par -- think of "Children of the Corn," "Pet Cemetery" and "Thinner."

    Since it's often difficult to translate full-length novels into decent motion pictures, especially ones delving in standard horror -- a literary genre that works best utilizing the reader's imagination, his offbeat, but incredibly well-written short stories seem to work better. Consequently, the best adaptions of his work have come from his stories that aren't pure horror, such as "Stand By Me" and "The Shawshank Redemption" (based on his novellas, "The Body" and "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" respectively).

    Thus, many are understandably interested in how the latest adaption of yet another King novella, "Apt Pupil," turns out. The answer is that it's neither as good nor as bad as the previously mentioned examples of both. A methodically slow psychological thriller, it's lack of much action and traditional Stephen King-based horror may put off some viewers looking just for that. Others, however, may find it to be an interesting match of malevolent wills.

    Cutting to the chase right from the onset, the film suffers somewhat from this tactic. While it's clear that director Bryan Singer (fresh off his acclaimed success of "The Usual Suspects") immediately wants to drop the viewer into the psychological melee -- a fact we usually applaud after sitting through many long and often drawn out expository pieces -- the initial character motivation feels rushed and implied here instead of naturally developed.

    We never know why Todd Bowden -- an above average kid who seemingly has everything going for him -- would become so obsessed with Nazism (compared to the upcoming "American History X" that perfectly shows how that might happen). While we understand the point the movie tries to make about absolute power corrupting absolutely, that's something that should develop as the story does and not be so casually accepted as a given.

    Beyond seeing the boy's class wrapping up its Holocaust discussion and his subsequent library visits (done during the opening credits), there's absolutely nothing to suggest any reason behind his sudden behavior and demeanor.

    Had the film showed us his detective work -- staking out, photographing, nabbing fingerprints, and generally observing the man over a short period of time, then the obsession might seem more natural. As it stands, the motivation seems too contrived and misses the golden opportunity to explore what drives so many kids into adopting violent ideologies.

    Instead, Singer and screenwriter Brandon Boyce (making his writing debut) are more interested in pure evil as a given, and wish to allow ample opportunities for the experienced and novice sadists to mentally spar. Once again, however, they miss the opportunity to explore what made Nazi's -- and in particular, this one officer -- tick.

    While Ian McKellen delivers a stellar performance as the aged torturer, it would have been so much more interesting had he been allowed to demonstrate some conscience amidst his evil. Much debate has been generated over the years about what motivated Nazi actions, and a popular belief is that officers and soldiers simply followed orders upon the belief that their superiors assumed all responsibility.

    Unfortunately, none of that's explored here beyond what's superficially presented. Although Dussander subtly conceals his evil and then allows it to slowly percolate once Todd comes along as a catalyst, he does so more for survival than as a result of morals, guilt, or a four decade reflection on what he's done.

    Even so, McKellen (the upcoming "Gods and Monsters," and an Emmy nominee for TV's "Rasputin") creates a memorable character that may just earn him an outside shot at a Best Supporting Oscar nomination. Although some may complain that McKellen occasionally overacts a bit, I found his performance appropriately creepy, subdued and always compelling.

    Brad Renfro ("The Client," "Sleepers") is okay in his role, but is unfortunately hampered by that lack of completely believable and/or plausible behavior. Had the filmmakers given his character a bit more depth (or at least more exposition about him), Renfro would have been much better and the film's mental chess match would have been more enjoyable and easier to accept. As it stands -- no matter how brilliant Bowden is supposed to be -- you never get the feeling that he has a chance against the seasoned, manipulative expert.

    Supporting performances are decent, with Michael Byrne delivering a chilling performance as a Holocaust survivor, and David Schwimmer (despite eliciting a few giggles from the audience upon on his first appearance), does a decent job playing somewhat against his nerdy character from TV's "Friends" (that's quickly starting to pigeonhole him).

    Although the story gets a bit out of control toward the end, and needs a big dose of suspension of disbelief to buy into that notion that Bowden could identify the old Nazi forty years later (along with another man late in the story) and after a worldwide manhunt failed to find him, for the most part it's an interesting psychological battle.

    Had it delivered a more thorough (or even any) examination of the motives behind the two combatants, the film would have been much better, but as it stands, it's still an interesting piece with a great performance from Ian McKellen. We give "Apt Pupil" a 6 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the film's content. Profanity is extreme with more than 20 "f" words and an assortment of others (including 2 uses of "G-damn" for those concerned with that). Violence is extreme with one person being stabbed and then bludgeoned with a shovel (resulting in a bloody scene), and violence to animals is successful in one scene, and nearly so in another (both of which may stir up imitative behavior).

    One scene has heavily implied oral sex (we see a girl's head disappearing into Todd's lap), and a locker room shower scene shows bare male butts and ever so brief glimpses of male full frontal nudity. The former Nazi smokes and drinks bourbon throughout the movie that is obviously also filled with many heavy thematic elements stemming from material and stories about Nazism, the Holocaust, and the atrocities committed in WWII.

    Should you or someone else in your home wish to see this film, you may want to take a closer look at the content we've listed in case you're still concerned about the film's appropriateness.

  • Dussander drinks bourbon throughout much of the film, Todd finds him seemingly passed out from drinking at the kitchen table, and later Dussander and Todd drink together (the latter only being sixteen).
  • The Bowden's and Dussander have wine when they have him over for dinner.
  • A girl with Todd smokes a joint.
  • Dussander and a homeless guy drink bourbon.
  • A person who's been stabbed is quite bloody, and later a pool of blood spills out onto the floor around his head. The assailants responsible for that also have some blood on them, and we see a bloody hand print on the telephone.
  • Some may be offended/upset about the film's use of the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities, and for the boy to somewhat glorify (by becoming obsessed) what happened.
  • Dussander obviously has both not only for what he did in the past, but also for what he does in the present (trying to kill a man).
  • Todd has both for not turning in Dussander, becoming obsessed with the atrocities performed in the past, and for blackmailing the old man into complying with his wishes.
  • We see Todd trying to forge his father's signature.
  • Todd lies to his parents, the cops, and his guidance counselor (whom he also blackmails) about Dussander and his knowledge of the man's past.
  • Dussander tells some stories about prisoners dying in the gas chambers, etc... that may be unsettling to some viewers.
  • Having found a cat outside, Dussander takes it inside, turns on the gas oven, and tries to put it inside (the cat scratches him, however, and escapes).
  • Spotting an injured pigeon that's made its way into the school gymnasium, Todd walks over, raises his basketball and smashes the pigeon with it (the impact isn't seen).
  • Dussander begins to hover around a homeless guy (after we know his evil has been reinvigorated).
  • A person stabs another person in the back, hits them, and then knocks them down a flight of stairs. Later, another person, surprised to see the wounded person alive, repeatedly hits that person with a shovel (and also kicks him) until he's really dead.
  • Knife/Shovel: Used to stab a person in the back and the latter is used repeatedly to hit him (until he's dead).
  • Phrases: "F*ck up," "Kicking my ass," "Idiot," "Sorry ass," "Balls" (testicles), "Screwed up," "Screwing around" and "Piss off."
  • Dussander gives "the finger" as the punch line in a story he tells, and later a student gives Todd the same for finishing his exam before him.
  • Having found a cat outside, Dussander takes it inside, turns on the gas oven, and tries to put it inside (the cat scratches him, however, and escapes).
  • Spotting an injured pigeon that's made its way into the school gymnasium, Todd walks over, raises his basketball and smashes the pigeon with it (the impact isn't seen).
  • We see Todd trying to forge his father's signature.
  • None.
  • A moderate amount of spooky and suspenseful music occurs during the movie.
  • None.
  • At least 21 "f" words (2 used with "mother"), 3 "s" words, 2 slang terms for male genitals ("d*ck"), 5 hells, 3 asses (1 used with "hole"), 1 crap, and 2 uses of "G-damn" and 1 use each of "For God's sakes," "Mary, mother of God," "Jesus" and "For Christ's sakes" as exclamations.
  • As Todd enters the locker room showers, we see the bare butts of many of his male classmates, including an ever so brief shot of male full frontal nudity.
  • Parked in a car with Todd, a girl tells him that sometimes it's better not to think, but just to do, and we then see her move her head down to his lap, implying oral sex. Moments later, it's suggested that he had problems performing sexually.
  • A homeless man misinterprets Dussander caressing his face for wanting sex (and even comments about getting paid for it the next morning).
  • Dussander smokes quite often during the film, while another man has a cigar.
  • None.
  • What would cause Todd to become so obsessed with this man and his roll in the Holocaust.
  • That power (or believing that others will take responsibility for actions) often corrupts and causes people to do bad things.
  • Nazism, the Holocaust and other such elements from WWII.
  • Although we don't see any flashbacks to this, Dussander talks about prisoners being gassed, shot in the head, and stuffed into ovens in concentration camps during WWII.
  • Having found a cat outside, Dussander takes it inside, turns on the gas oven, and tries to put it inside (the cat scratches him, however, and escapes).
  • Spotting an injured pigeon that's made its way into the school gymnasium, Todd walks over, raises his basketball and smashes the pigeon with it (the impact isn't seen).
  • Todd violently knocks items from a table in anger.
  • A person stabs another person in the back, hits them, and then knocks them down a flight of stairs. Later, another person, surprised to see the wounded person alive, repeatedly hits that person with a shovel (and also kicks him) until he's really dead.
  • A person commits suicide by blowing air into an IV tube (ie. Air into the bloodstream).

  • Reviewed October 14, 1998

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