An unusual relationship springs up between an all-American high school teenager and an ageing Nazi war criminal.
The always-vexing question of what to make after your breakthrough movie is answered here with confidence by Bryan Singer. It would have been easy to take the Tarantino route and follow The Usual Suspects (Singer's second film after Public Access) with a similar but bigger-budget ensemble crime drama. Instead, the director takes advantage of a larger canvas to tell a more intimate, even claustrophobic story, essentially focusing on two characters.
Like the Stephen King novella on which it is based (which is as long as many novels by other authors), the film gets its most implausible turn out of the way very swiftly as small-town high schooler Todd Bowden (Renfro) recognises mild-mannered immigrant retiree Arthur Denker (McKellen) as Kurt Dussander, formerly the commandant of a Nazi extermination camp. Todd threatens Dussander with exposure, but proposes not to turn him in to the authorities if the old man helps him with a nebulous school history project on the nature of evil by telling stories about his part in the Holocaust. Dussander, whom Todd sometimes dresses up in a theatrical costumier Nazi uniform, is reluctant to dig up the past, but gradually begins to exert a snakelike fascination on the kid, clearly enjoying the opportunity of reliving his old crimes and perhaps getting his hooks into a fresh, young brain to warp a new generation of monster.
With another powerful and suggestive performance from McKellen as a retired monster who reaches out to connect with an all-American youth, Apt Pupil feels a little like the dark mirror image of Gods And Monsters. It's a nuanced reading of a role that requires the actor to play undiluted evil, gaining power from the way McKellen shows us that the frail Dussander is still a monster manipulator and at heart a stone killer. The inevitable gay subtext, stretching to an extraordinary seduction-murder scene with Elias Koteas as a would-be blackmailing tramp, is unstressed as the film goes beyond sexuality to plumb even deeper waters. Like The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil is readable as an interrogation of the Devil. David Schwimmer wears an unfortunate moustache as a nosy school counsellor and not all the plot developments ring true, but moments carry a real chill - even in a coma, McKellen can terrify a fellow patient almost to death.
Has more than enough thought-provoking material to command your interest.