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The Boston Phoenix Learning Curve

'Apt Pupil' is an education in evil

By Gary Susman

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  Apt Pupil is one of the most literate and genuinely creepy movies ever adapted from a Stephen King tale, perhaps because its monster is so real and deceptively ordinary. In a season of movies that make facile connections between the superficiality of suburban life and depraved behavior, Bryan Singer's film returns Hannah Arendt's phrase "banality of evil" to its original sense, describing Nazism as an evil made all the more frightening for our inability to explain its evolution from a seemingly benign seed. As in Singer's previous effort, The Usual Suspects, evil simply exists, and all the good can do is hope to stay out of its way.

Here, evil is not just the friendly neighborhood Nazi but the all-American boy who yearns to know what it feels like to be a mass murderer. The movie doesn't really explain why 16-year-old Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) is fascinated with Nazism, only that he attends a school festooned with vaguely fascist emblems (a pirate skull) and slogans ("Dare to be a leader," printed in a Germanic font) and that he wants to know more than what he believes his history teacher was afraid to mention during a brief lesson on the Holocaust. After doing his own research, Todd recognizes a local recluse, Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), as Kurt Dussander, a fugitive Nazi war criminal. Todd confronts Dussander and blackmails him, but not for money -- he threatens to expose him unless the old man shares with him the unvarnished accounts of his crimes.

The heart of the movie is the twisted mentor/pupil relationship, which seems figuratively sexual though not literally so. Todd becomes so obsessed with Dussander's stories that his interest in schoolwork, sports, and girls completely droops. Dussander refers to Todd's yen for more tales from the old man's remorseless litany of atrocities -- call it Holo-porn -- as "morbid fascination," but he grows to derive as much grim satisfaction from telling as the boy does from listening. After hearing enough stories, however, Todd learns that he has become, in effect, an accomplice, and that it is Dussander who is exploiting him. Eventually, Todd will learn exactly how it feels to be both victim and victimizer, and he will find he gets a real charge out of the latter. "My dear boy, don't you see?" says the old man as the lessons reach their inevitably violent climax. "We are fucking each other."

Renfro has spent his career playing kids who are both exploited and exploiters (The Client, Tom and Huck, Sleepers), so he's readily convincing as a boy who evolves from empty vessel into budding sociopath. But the movie belongs to McKellen. He could easily have played his role for camp (the script, by first-time screenwriter Brandon Boyce, depicts Dussander as a man who enjoys old sit-coms, Beethoven, and torturing small animals), but his is a much more insinuating performance. He's an almost pathetic geezer, his step slow, his voice thick with phlegm and bile, who registers not glee but some hideous travesty of it when he discovers that his long-buried viciousness is a reflex as easily reawakened as riding a bicycle.

In fact, Nazism is a reality more powerful, perhaps, than this movie can handle. The specifics of Dussander's crimes are largely left to the imagination, just as in Todd's history class. The word "Jews" is never spoken in the film (though during Todd's class on the Holocaust, it is ominously erased from the blackboard), and Todd's private lessons in horror have no racial component (though he ultimately destroys a man who stands in his way, a man played by that archetypal Jewish nebbish David Schwimmer). Only when an old man with a number tattoo'd on his arm also recognizes Dussander does the movie hint that Nazism is not merely a metaphor for any variety of evil that involves exploitation of the weak, but a specific ideology based on race hatred and resulting in genocide.

At that climactic moment, evil is briefly made flesh and recognized for what it is, only then to elude justice forever, just as in The Usual Suspects. That knowledge colors Apt Pupil with a merciless bleakness, but it also serves to remind us that evil is more opaque and insuperable than in the stories we tell to comfort ourselves.

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