Plot: As he learns about World War II in school, Todd (Brad Renfro) takes an intense interest in the Nazis and the horrific stories of the holocaust. He’s a great student with a sharp mind, which leads to him using what he’s learned to piece together that one of his neighbors might be a war criminal. Mr. Dussander (Ian McKellen) is an old, seemingly frail man in the neighborhood, but Todd is convinced he was a Nazi officer. He claims to have tracked Dussander’s movements between concentration camps and has evidence even beyond that. At first Dussander denies the accusations, but when Todd says he will keep the secret if he is able to learn about the inner workings of the Nazi regime, he comes clean that he is indeed a wanted war criminal. As Todd soaks in all of Dussander’s stories, he becomes more and more drawn in, but does the old man have more power in the situation than his young friend realizes?
Entertainment Value: Based on a novella by Stephen King, Apt Pupil is a tense, more than solid thriller, even if it leaves a lot of potential on the table. The narrative has a tight focus and maintains a nice slow burn, but it doesn’t offer enough depth and the final act comes off the rails a little. This is in essence a character study focused on Dussander and Todd, but much more time is invested in the old man, which leaves Todd’s development on the thin side. His relationship with Dussander is so odd and his own motivations are kind of overlooked, so we never get a firm grasp on his inner demons and what pushes him closer and closer to the brink. I suppose not knowing makes it more sinister in some ways, but I would have appreciated at least somewhat more of an exploration of how his mind worked. I think where Apt Pupil loses steam is in some of the side threads, as time is invested in secondary characters that might have been better used to flesh out our leads instead. Or perhaps if the scenes that examine Todd’s school and home life shed more light on his slide into darkness, this would have been a more robust, effective overall thriller. There’s a solid story here and ample tension however, so fans of the genre should still appreciate Apt Pupil on the whole.
Apt Pupil boasts a rock solid lineup of talent and while the material doesn’t give most of them enough room to shine, the performances are mostly effective. Ian McKellen has one of the central roles and the most fleshed out character, which means he has more to work with and he makes use of that. He is able to convey a deep, entrenched evil in Dussander and project a genuine sense of threat, with great facial expressions and general presence. Even in calm, exposition driven sequences, just a look from McKellen speaks volume and his eyes bring that buried evil to the surface. The scene where he puts on the old uniform and begins to march is one of the movie’s most intense and memorable sequences. Brad Renfro has the other lead and he isn’t on McKellen’s level, as his performance is inconsistent and a little over the top, given the serious, tense tone found in the rest of the movie. I don’t think it is a bad turn, just not quite on point for this kind of material. The cast also includes David Schwimmer, Bruce Davison, James Karen, and Joshua Jackson.
The Disc: Umbrella Entertainment bows Apt Pupil on Blu-ray in a solid treatment that offers a welcome upgrade over the old DVD releases, though I wouldn’t say the overall visuals are at eye popping levels. The detail is good and lends some impressive refinements in some scenes, with fabric and other textures in clear sight, though not all scenes offer that kind of depth. I think colors looked natural and contrast is good, if a touch light at times. The print looks super clean, even pristine, with no signs of age of wear whatsoever. The extras include a promotional behind the scenes featurette, some tv spots, and the film’s trailer.