Apt Pupil (1998)
A high school student (Brand Renfro) suspects his elderly neighbour (Ian McKellen) of being a nazi war criminal. A curious relationship develops between the two before all-round chaos ensues.
Adapted from a short story by Stephen King, this looks and feels like a made-for-TV movie. The plot is remarkably simple and appeals to all of us who want to know exactly what drives men to do the most depraved things.
Renfro is barely out of short-trousers but approaches his role brilliantly and gives a very mature performance. McKellen wallows in his character’s many layers and is unnervingly convincing as “Mr Denker”. Much of the film takes place at McKellen’s kitchen table where, sipping neat whiskey, he tells Renfro everything about the mechanized killing of the nazi-holocaust. The script carries the film and some of the dialogue between Renfro and McKellen is ingenious. When an upset Renfro screams at McKellen “go fuck yourself!”, a half-cut McKellen laughs back “Oh, my dear boy, don’t you see, we are fucking each other?”. As the relationship develops, it is McKellen who blackmails Renfro into studying hard for his finals – a bizarre reversal of roles. Their relationship is not to last however and there is a fantastic set-piece, shot in the hospital, where a fellow elderly patient – with a characteristic serial number on his arm – identifies the ailing McKellen lying in the bed next door as the monster he really is.
Other stand-out scenes include an electrifying sequence in which McKellen is forced to dress-up in his old SS uniform, march and salute the Fuhrer. Initially, McKelln reluctantly follows his instructions – cursing Renfro’s character for his childish games – but soon enough, becomes caught in a nostalgic trance and refuses to stop marching whilst becoming increasingly rabid in his barking nazi salue. A memorable moment indeed. There’s also a nasty scene in which McKellen puts a cat in the oven….
The supporting cast is packed with notable actors – including David Schwimmer as a high-school counsellor; Joshua Jackson as Renfro’s best mate and James Karen as Renfro’s grandfather. Schwimmer though is disappointing and gives a half-hearted performance – can he do serious roles?
The only thing I would say against the movie is that it is rather predictable – there is no real mystery here like in director Bryan Singer’s tour-de-force “The Usual Suspects” – and at over 110 minutes is probably about 20 mins too long.
This film isn’t for everyone, but I found it thoroughly entertaining with McKellen really driving a an unsettling jolt through my body everytime he staggered on-screen.