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by: Scott Renshaw

Apt Pupil'S Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) is practically the poster child for an upstanding American teenager circa 1984. He's a straight-A student on track to graduate from high school at sixteen; he's a star baseball pitcher; his parents (Bruce Davison and Ann Dowd) are successful, involved and, astonishingly, still happily married. It is this same Todd Bowden who discovers that a man in his Northern California town named Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen) is actually fugitive Nazi war criminal Kurt Dussander. It is this same Todd Bowden who blackmails Denker, threatening to expose him unless he describes war-time attrocities to Todd in unrelenting detail. It is this same Todd Bowden who becomes obsessed with the horrifying images of concentration camps, and who turns to strange acts of cruelty. Creepy, disquieting stuff, to be sure, but there's one crucial puzzle piece missing from director Bryan Singer's (The Usual Suspects) adaptation of the Stephen King novella: why? Why does Todd become so improbably fascinated with the horrors of genocide and the wielding of absolute power over the life of another? Why do Denker's tales turn him alternately into a nightmare-plagued wreck and a glassy-eyed borderline psycho? There's certainly a story to be told by making the teen demon of Apt Pupil a golden boy rather than a troubled misfit -- perhaps to suggest the capacity for evil within us all, perhaps as a commentary on how we make the forbidden fascinating by hiding it from the eyes of children. What's missing is a motivation for this particular boy, something that makes him more than a symbolic representation of good youth gone awry. That absence of motivation becomes even more glaring in the film's second half, when the power dynamic between the two characters shifts back in Denker's favor. His life of quiet isolation shattered by re-living his past, Denker begins to show that the rush he got from manipulating lives was merely in hibernation. McKellen's sharp performance shows Denker's icy confidence growing by the scene, until it's clear that the hunted has become the hunter once more. At that same time, Todd is trying to recover from letting his grades slide through his frequent visits with Denker, seemingly returning to "normal" until Denker forces him into an acknowledgement of how far he's truly willing to go. It's easy to understand Denker's character and follow his twists, turns and changes. By contrast, Todd's dark side seems to emerge strictly for bad seed shock value. Even the gaps in Todd's characterization become less important as Singer's taut direction takes over in the climactic thirty minutes. As circumstances threaten to expose the actions of both Todd and Denker, the simmering tension begins building at an impressive clip. Apt Pupil is a rare example of a thriller that gets better as it approaches its conclusion, rather than collapsing in a muddle of rushed plot points and pat resolutions. It's hard not to imagine how effective a film it might have been if Todd Bowden made more sense as a character. The token glimpses of his friendships, romantic life and hobbies are maddening in their mundanity. Something significant happens in the space between Todd spotting Denker on a bus and their initial contact, something reduced in the film to a "One Month Later" title card. That missing something is what makes Apt Pupil merely morbidly intriguing, rather than truly disturbing. On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 diluted pupils: 6.


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