Apt Pupil (1998)

D: Bryan Singer
S: Ian McKellen, Brad Renfro

The troubled history of Stephen King adaptations inevitably leaves viewers wary of the latest attempt to translate his work for the big screen. Some of the most successful have come from the compilation Different Seasons, including Stand By Me (which was "The Body") and The Shawshank Redemption (which was "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption"). Apt Pupil is the third from that volume, and it has proved the most problematic and challenging simply because of the complexity and extremity of its vision of human degradation. The film has come through torturous financing and distribution channels, and has suffered some degree of editorial censorship along the way, but it still retains moments of great power. Its vision is dark and fairly uncompromising, and like Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption it manages to extrude its troublesome psychic phantasms from relatively prosaic situations. Apt Pupil is a little more fantastical than its predecessors, but its monsters are more from the ego than the id, and kinky and fetishistic as it might be at times, it is often all too believable as a meditation upon the dynamics of power in human interrelationships.

The basic premise has young high school student Brad Renfro becoming fascinated with Nazism after hearing about the Holocaust, and then finding himself in contact with former Concentration Camp commandant Ian McKellen (Richard III, Gods and Monsters), now hiding under a false identity in anonymous, democratic America. The boy's obsession drives him to blackmail the old man into giving him gruesome first-hand accounts of the atrocities. It soon becomes clear that it is not so much the history which interests him, nor the moral lesson normally presumed to be learned from its study, but the insight it gives him into the ruthless manipulation of other people and the exercise of will which empowered the Nazis in their quest to dominate the world.

In offering us a fresh faced high school kid with a genuinely dark edge, King and Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) have made a small breakthrough with this story. It relies too heavily on convenient plot twists to work as a straight thriller, but it is as a discourse upon a twisted world and a twisted mind that it manages to take hold in the first place. Though there are some bloody murders and body-in-the-basement moments which suggest the traditional gothic stereotype, the type of sociopathic personality exhibited in Renfro's character is more disturbingly banal than is usual in genre entries. Like King's novel of Misery, the film succeeds in arguing that the line between the ordinary and the abnormal is extremely fine (Rob Reiner's film version was a little clumsy on this point), and while Renfro perhaps overdoes the lowered-brow stare, he does convincingly portray a person whose self-enabling life script is drawn from whatever source serves him best, not those approved of by the society in which he lives. While the plot is far from airtight and its loses its grip with a subplot about academic grades, its subtle suggestion of a lurking fascism to the facade of democratic self-determination lionised in 1980s America is all the more potent in the late 1990s and offers just as much pause for thought as the likes of American History X and Arlington Road, though its conclusions are less ideologically specific.

For his part, McKellen is wonderful in his portrayal of the man whose dark past is not nearly the source of guilt it should be, and whose relationship with the boy is tinged not only with an underlying homoeroticism, but a sense of mutual recognition in which the fetish is power, not sex (or even death). Toned down from the novella, the film subtly implies a codependence which fuels their joint progression to greater extremes as McKellen's character, liberated by the boy's torments, begins to revel in his former depravity and sees his own desires in Renfro. McKellen captures this transformation very well, and even manages to convey some of the human emotions which generate sympathy for the monster which force the viewer into even an more uncomfortable position as the film reaches its climax. It is a much deeper and more complex psychological transference than it appears on the surface, and while it is easy to become distracted by the debate on the appropriateness of the representation of Nazism and/or homoeroticism in this context, the film plunges into human darkness on a level which reduces both to symptoms of the disease that is power itself.

It is here that it begins to shift towards something genuinely disturbing. By using the high school setting (and sneakily employing and subverting many of the signifiers of the High School Movie genre), Singer begins to pick apart the hierarchies of civilised society and demonstrate their potential use and abuse. When his grades begin to slip, Renfro is lectured by Guidance Counsellor David Schwimmer about the possibilities which will open up to him if he maintains his academic standards. We realise that his future depends less on grades than on the will he shows to take control of his destiny, a point driven home by a final confrontation between Schwimmer and Renfro which shows us what the boy has really learned, and how little murder has to do with making people do what you want. Renfro's parents are themselves subject to a series of paradoxes when McKellen uses the clichés of dysfunctionalism to delude Schwimmer which contrasts with Bruce Davison's and Ann Dowd's generally wholesome portrayals of 'model' parents. Similarly Renfro's series of high school relationships are subject to systematic destruction and careful question, with his 'best friend' and 'girlfriend' cohorts sidelined to his growing obsession to the point where the generic clichés collapse.

Apt Pupil is a film about the transcendence of power: its ability to transgress boundaries of culture, economics, gender and history. The goal of both Renfro and McKellen is to exert influence over other human beings; tangible and affective influence which changes both thought and behaviour. This is demonstrated by the keynote (if obvious) scene where Renfro drills McKellen in a Nazi uniform like a puppet. It seems as if he controls the old man, but as the game goes on, he loses it, and it becomes evident that the balance of power is unstable. The film argues, as did The Usual Suspects, that power is beyond ideology. In this case the waters are muddied by the presence and centrality of Nazism, but it boils down to Kaiser Soze's realisation that power comes from "the willingness to do what the other guy won't." The question is what will McKellen and Renfro do and what effect will it have upon the people around them, not why or where it comes from. Power is the monster, not Nazism, or homosexuality. Its touch distorts, corrupts and kills, and it cannot be contained once it has been released.

While all of this makes the film a fascinating and chilling one, it is not always convincing enough on the surface. Doubts about the timeline and occasional contrivances in plotting make for small doubts which become exaggerated as the narrative progresses and the action expands. The story doesn't hang together in a real world sense, though it does work as a collection of generic situations which are being used to get the argument from point to point. The motivations of supporting characters are too often grounded in narrative necessity and not particularly believable, and with McKellen and Renfro dominating the screen with such layered and offbeat performances, supporting actors make less of an impression. Elias Koteas is an exception in a bizarre characterisation of a homeless man whose attempts to exert power over McKellen neatly counterpoint the efforts of his 'pupil', though again, he serves to advance an idea and emerges rather too conveniently out of the fabric of the film's universe when he is needed.

The very fact that it does touch upon Nazism and homosexuality also raises difficulties which the film is unable to overcome with regard to both. While they provide a convenient conduit through which this examination of power flows, in themselves both are issues which raise more questions than the film can address. It frequently runs the risk of becoming a simplistic equation of between either and/or both and 'deviance', and it is easy for those prone to offence to be offended by this suggestion. That the film is a more subtle and interesting than that will not be obvious at first glance, a situation not helped by the questions raised by the plotting and the use of cliché. The film demands a suspension of disbelief too great to fully reconcile with the potency of its subject matter, and in this sense it is disappointing that it squanders an opportunity to deal with it. But on the whole Apt Pupil is engrossing and thought-provoking viewing, which is enough in itself to make it worthy of commendation and recommendation. It is most definitely not to all tastes though, and should be approached with caution and intelligence rather than reactionary recklessness.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.