Thursday, April 5, 2007

#3: Apt Pupil (Bryan Singer, 1998)

This film's subject matter is something that must be dealt with, but I don't think this is the proper forum, and I don't feel like getting into it tonight. The problem is not specifically with this film (or the Stephen King novella it's based on), but with any piece of art or entertainment that uses the Holocaust when the primary author of the work has, at best, a tenuous connection to the subject. The Holocaust has become Starbucks shorthand for artists wishing to give their work some unearned gravitas, false depth, or dramatic punch. There is more to be said about this, but let it stand as an ever-present problem hovering in the background of my otherwise mildly positive enjoyment of the movie. Also, I am a man who watches movies about people being murdered in a variety of gruesome ways for relaxing, light entertainment, so maybe I'm ethically compromised, too.

Moving on, "Apt Pupil" was marketed as a drama on its release, savaged by critics, and a disappointment at the box office. It is now remembered as a momentary setback for director Singer, in between his hits "The Usual Suspects" and "X-Men." The Fangoria list places the movie where it belongs, as a horror film, and sets it up for reevaluation. In this context (or, really, in any other), ethically compromised plot or no, it is a much better film than it's been given credit for. I prefer it to its bookends, the former a fun but empty exercise in film-school bag-of-tricks show-offiness elevated by a great cast, the latter a boring, expensive Hollywood crapfest. "Apt Pupil" isn't exactly a cinematic masterpiece, but it's effective and well-acted, with skillful pacing and some delightful nastiness. Brad Renfro plays a high school student and intensely repressed self-hating homosexual who becomes obsessed with the Holocaust and recognizes a reclusive man who lives in his neighborhood, played by Ian McKellen, as a former Nazi SS man in hiding. He blackmails him in exchange for stories about what it was really like to be a Nazi. The blackmail becomes more sadistic and homoerotic in nature until the dormant Nazi in McKellen is awakened. And McKellen loves it. Soon, the playa is getting played, and the blackmail tables are turned. McKellen is fantastic in the role, and he is crucial for the film's success. If they got some jobber or Hollywood billionaire to play the part, the movie would have imploded. McKellen plays him in that dangerously narrow area between realism and camp, and never once plunks down too hard in the former or explodes all over the latter. He's a great actor. In many ways, McKellen's character is a classic movie monster, with Renfro as his assistant. Renfro is purposely annoying in the part, which I think is the right choice. In King's novella, which I haven't read since I was nine years old so I could be full of shit, the character is much more evil. The story ends with his character shooting his fellow classmates during school. This may or may not have worked in King's story, but the movie takes a much quieter tack with a completely different ending, which I think is a smart move. It realizes that a real-life Nazi is much more evil and frightening than a fascistic teenage asshole, and the Nazi is the one we should really be scared of. Again, I'm not sure how ethical it is to turn the Nazi into a fictional Dracula or Wolf Man boogeyman, but it makes plenty of cinematic and American folkloric sense. This is, basically, what the Nazis are for an average, upper middle class American: campfire horror stories whose realities never really intrude too much on our complacent creature comforts.

Oh yeah, the most terrifying thing about "Apt Pupil"? The mustache of David Schwimmer, playing Renfro's guidance counselor.

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