It must be frustrating to direct an okay new film then hear nothing but let-down comparisons to your previous outing. Yet, that’s precisely the scenario I’m afraid Bryan “The Usual Suspects” Singer faces with “Apt Pupil.”
Based on a Stephen King novella, Todd, a high school honor student, tracks down a Nazi war criminal who’s been living in Todd’s hometown since the end of the war. Armed with photographs and incriminating fingerprints, Todd threatens to turn in the old man unless he tells the teenager what it was like in the concentration camps. As the man recounts his horrific crimes over the course of several weeks, Todd begins to come under the influence of the old Nazi’s latent evil, rekindled despite having lain dormant for nearly half a century. The monster swiftly turns the tables on Todd, entrapping him in a neat blackmail scheme of his own, so that Master and understudy are locked in a dark twisted cycle of mutual dependency.
The problem is, Todd’s stalked this guy and compiled a dossier complete with photographs and fingerprints. But we have no idea what’s fueling Todd’s morbid interest, so we’re constantly distracted by wondering, “Why?”, the first question people ask when confronted with unspeakable evil.
Then, after jumping right into this nightmare, the film muddles through an unfocused second act as if even it couldn’t face the evil leaping off the screen. Several times I rubbed my hands in “Okay, here we go!” anticipation but the film again settles back on its haunches.
There are a handful of chilling individual scenes, however. When Todd commands the old Nazi, dressed up in the trademark black leather SS uniform, to march, we voyeuristically look in as if spying on some kinky S&M parlor game. Stiff as a marionette at first, the old man revs up into a momentarily rejuvenated, goose-stepping storm trooper, briefly and dangerously beyond Todd’s control.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these signature scenes to sustain the film. Even Ian McKellen’s awesome performance as a pitiable old man in one instant, an unreconstructed monster the next, is a double-edged sword. He’s so good, he simply overpowers Brad Renfro’s Todd. And the montage device that Singer used to such devastating effect in “The Usual Suspects” climax is just beat into the ground here. See, there it is again. Another, inevitable comparison to “The Usual Suspects.”
Oh, why fight it? “Apt Pupil” is a creepy, if disjointed exploration of the nature of evil. But compared to its predecessor, it’s also a bit of a disappointment.