Neighborhood boy Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) discovers that an old man living on his block named Arthur Denker (Sir Ian Mackellan) is a Nazi war criminal. Bowden confronts Denker and offers him a deal: Bowden will not go to the authorities if Denker tells him stories of the concentration camps in World War II. Denker agrees and Bowden starts visiting him regularly. The more stories Bowden hears, the more it affects his personality.Written by
Casey Ward <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This movie uses names of teachers from Bryan Singer's alma mater, West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, including Mrs. Fiscarelli and Mr. Weiskopf. See more »
A 3-point line is visible on the school's basketball court. The setting of the movie is 1984 and the 3-point line wasn't introduced to the high school game until 1987. See more »
[about the killings at the death camps]
What did it feel like?
It was something that had to be done. A door had been opened and couldn't be shut. It was the end... You don't understand.
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The film has a 1997 copyright date in the credits. See more »
Before I even start my review of this movie (which I liked) I gotta say "Apt Pupil" has got to be the goofiest name for a story since the hilarious 30 Rock spoof "Rural Juror". Say it 10 times fast and you'll feel like you just came back from the dentist.
There have been many films and books that attempt to explain the horror that we humans are capable of. While I haven't read the Stephen King nouvelle "Apt Pupil", I can tell you this film adaptation kept my attention and tossed around some new ideas I hadn't really considered.
If you haven't already seen it, search for the Stanley Milgram experiment. It was a psychological test done by a Yale student back in the 1960s offering one of the most chilling explanations for the phenomenon of Nazism, a convincing illustration of how humans can do horrific things. The gist is that we convince ourselves that we're doing what we're supposed to be doing ("just following orders" or "everyone told me to do it"). The video is online on dailymotion.
"Apt Pupil" surprised me by taking a very different approach which I won't ruin for you. I'll just say that it weaves a complex Machiavellian scheme, where evil is deliberate and conscious of itself. It finds its footing by creating a balance of power, reminiscent of the "mutual assured destruction" philosophy in the 80s that led the USA and Russia to stockpile enough nukes to send us to the Smurf universe.
OK, enough background. Let's talk about the film already. If the premise doesn't capture you instantly, the impressive directing and musical score should suck you in with its heavy, foreboding mood. Ian McKellan (probably best known as Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings but also an accomplished Shakespearean actor) is excellent in the role of an ex- Nazi... a menacing enigma somewhere between a serial killer and a cranky grandfather.
Brad Renfro appears on screen as the perfect naïve kid with a perpetual deer-in-the- headlights expression, sort of like John Cusack in the 80s but without the laughs. The film focuses mainly on the transformation of Renfro's character. It's here where I was unconvinced, and I docked the film a point or 2. Renfro's character mutates so suddenly and drastically you'd think he sucked down some radioactive sludge. I feel a lot of his "experiments with evil" were uncharacteristic and thrown in for shock value. No matter how curious a person is, nobody goes from Pollyanna to animal mutilations in just a month or two. It was this seemingly random, inexplicable moral decay which I felt was just injected for cheap shock value. If you can get past that, the real theme emerges.
The root of human evil, according to "Apt Pupil," is not random moral decay but actually a complex struggle for power. When this theme emerged in the latter half, that's when I perked up and paid attention. The story then takes on a suspenseful air, and the kid & the Nazi get into an interesting game of cat & mouse.
Overall, I'll stick with the Stanley Milgram experiment for the most convincing explanation of human atrocities. But "Apt Pupil" definitely delivers some food for thought. Another film that provides insight is the criminally underrated "Exorcist III" with George C. Scott and Brad Dourif playing mind games in an insane asylum. Also check out the documentary "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer," or on the lighter side, "Dr. Strangelove" makes an interesting commentary on why humans commit genocide. Who knows why humans kill, maim and torture. But as long as we keep investigating there may be hope for us.
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