It's been almost four years since Bryan Singer blazed into our collective consciousness with the breathtaking The Usual Suspects. But the long wait hasn't done Singer's Apt Pupil any favours: as a sophomore effort, this is hardly in the same class as Pulp Fiction. In other words, anyone who's still hoping to meet Keyser Soze had better brace themselves for a serious disappointment.
On one level, Apt Pupil is an expert exercise in domestic horror, with master and pupil getting drawn deeper into a chess game of blackmail and counter-blackmail around the kitchen table.
Singer uses the threat of public exposure to create moments of brittle tension, for example when Dussander charms Todd's parents at a family dinner, or when Todd cajoles Kurt into trying on a Nazi costume. And the central performances of Renfro and veteran McKellen resonate with unspoken darkness throughout.
The rest of the cast - in other words, the good guys - are a largely ineffectual and forgettable lot. Pitted against the personification of evil are a comically moustachioed David Schwimmer as an impotent social worker, Bruce Davison as Todd's supportive father and Joshua Jackson (of Dawson's Creek fame) as Todd's smug mate Joey. None of these characters offer any sort of opposition to the magnetic McKellen, leaving his deepening hold on Todd not only unchallenged but also unquestioned.
The source material is a short story by Stephen King (part of the same collection that spawned Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption) and, whatever his strengths as a storyteller, few would claim that King is a profound philosopher. Translating King's novella into a screenplay of sufficient depth, therefore, would surely have required a master craftsman. Instead, Singer gave the job to first-time screenwriter Brandon Boyce, a childhood friend. Unfortunately, Boyce has signally failed to live up to the challenge: in place of the thoughtful, thorough examination of the nature of malevolence which the subject demands, Apt Pupil presents a central thesis - evil makes people feel powerful - that is simply trite.
A story about historical evil, as opposed to one about killer cyborgs or angry demons, should only be tackled with the most serious of intentions. Yet, as Apt Pupil unravels, it provokes the unsettling suspicion that Singer and his collaborators have invoked the unspeakable atrocities of World War Two simply because they thought it would make a cool movie.
Most disappointingly, after all the intrigues have been played out, the film-makers tack on a violent climax which fails to convince as anything other than a studio-dictated grand finale. Considering the devastating ending Singer pulled off in The Usual Suspects, this limp conclusion comes as an altogether different kind of surprise.
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As a thriller, Apt Pupil has enough tension to satisfy fans of contemporary horror movies. As a drama, however, it fails to deliver enough insight into its own subject. As for Singer, the aptitude is certainly there - he just needs to read better books.