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FW Weekly Evil is Contagious

Apt Pupil will make you ill at ease.

By Joe Leydon

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  In the gospel according to The Usual Suspects, Bryan Singer's ruthlessly cunning puzzle-box thriller, pure evil of the sort personified by the mysterious Keyser Soze is at once darkly fascinating and elusively incomprehensible. Indeed, such a horror seems so monstrously larger than life that, in this era of moral relativism, we are tempted to dismiss it as mere superstition. Trouble is, we make this denial at grave risk. As one of the more unusual suspects tells an inquisitive cop: "The smartest trick the devil ever pulled was making the world think he doesn't exist."

Singer goes one step further in his latest film, Apt Pupil, by focusing on an impressionable protagonist who readily acknowledges the existence of evil - but gets into trouble while confirming his worst suspicions. Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), a small-town high-school student, becomes obsessed with the Holocaust during history class. Much like a budding baseball fan who studies the stats for players of yesteryear, Bowden immerses himself in research, to learn more about the architects of the Nazi death machine. When he discovers that an elderly neighbor actually is Kurt Dussander (Ian Mc-Kellen), a former SS officer living under an assumed identity, Bowden audaciously blackmails the fugitive war criminal. In return for Bow-den's silence, Dussander must tell the teenager "everything they're afraid to show us in school."

There's a major stumbling block to enjoying Apt Pupil as entertainment: Despite Singer's discreet handing of volatile subject matter, it's hard to shake the impression that, like the Stephen King novella on which it is based, the movie is exploiting the Holocaust for melodramatic purposes. But if you can get past that - that is, if you want to get past it - Apt Pupil is undeniably engrossing as it examines the malleability of character and the allure of the unthinkable. Fascism, like all other forms of evil, is a virus. As such, it is highly contagious.

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