Before X-Men wunderkind Bryan Singer tackled his depiction of the botched assassination on Hitler in Valkyrie, he dipped his toes in Nazi content with an adaptation of Stephen King's novella Apt Pupil, a composite thriller that plays with the villainy of both a darker part of history and the wickedness brewing in a youthful, promising mind. Seditious material brims under the surface, as Todd (Brad Renfro) -- an impressionable high-schooler infatuated with the Holocaust -- discovers wanted German war criminal Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen) living in his neighborhood and blackmails him for his own fiendish purposes. Not for money or power, mind you, but for the direct knowledge that he forces from the old man, a series of intently-detailed stories about the things he did while he held power. Does he do it to chastise the old man for past transgressions, to sate his morbid curiosity, or are the gears in his brain curious about Dussander's violent past on a deeper level?
Unique ideas about the complexity of cruelty stir underneath the story, mostly rooted in the infrastructure of Stephen King's source material, yet it lacks the precision to telegraph anything beyond a tepid mental struggle between two dark minds. Director Singer generates a similar energy as that of The Usual Suspects in the cramped confines of Kurt Dussander's house, a malice-fueled den where Todd experiments with his own spiteful nature while provoking the blackmailed old man. Singer certainly can build tension amid embattled conversations; the back-and-forth ferocity between them leaves one stirring in expectation over what's to be said next, whether it's Todd's goading or the rumble of history-bound ghost stories from his feeble, cornered captive. There's breathlessness to be found there, with the eerie history as the backbone that supports their rapport.
A large portion of its narrow appeal comes in the spark between Brad Renfro and Ian McKellen, which sculpts a consistently gruff atmosphere alongside Singer's grasp on the source. Renfro dips into a proficiently dark space with Todd, making the vagueness of his malice intriguing even when we're unconvinced of his integrity as a well-fleshed character. He sports an edge at the beginning that slowly sharpens and darkens with the rattled tone that surrounds him around the onslaught of info about the atrocities Dussander complacently verbalizes. McKellen handles the poise of the a man with a sadistic past adeptly, though he essentially stays in one gear from start to finish. There is one scene, however, when Dussander attends a dinner where he's required to holster the viciousness we've seen of him up until this point, and the faint air of slimy charm McKellen exudes while he's lying through his teeth as he charms the dinner guests elevates the sequence -- and the character's fierceness.
Apt Pupil struggles with marshalling and propelling Todd's motives around Dussander, however, which leaves the young deviant's provocation without the clearly-defined aim it needs to inject meaningfulness into the intensity. There's something to be said for ambiguousness over his intentions, letting the audience interpret Singer's construction of the boy's obscure impetus how they desire. As he draws Swastikas on his notepad at school, drags out nasty stories of gas chambers from Dussander, and even suits the old man up in Nazi officer regalia for a march around his house, the peculiar glee in his eyes only reveals his subversion and not really what he's wanting to do with the unsettling material that he's holding in his hands. It's a clever way to draw curiosity at first, even deepen the intrigue in Todd's mental state, but it begins to frustrate with its clouded aims once the larger power shifts occur in the film. Todd's nastiness intermittently captivates afterward, but it's only on a raw suspenseful level.
A power shift does occur in Apt Pupil, as the title suggests, which flips everything on its head by using payback and dishonesty as the components of its vigorous backswing. Yet even as Singer's talent with telegraphing suspense wraps itself around the climactic follow-through, involving a return of Dussander's brutality that involves screeching cats and a hapless homeless man (Elias Koteas in a brief, uninteresting and unconvincing role), it only succeeds in orchestrating a shallow chess game built atop the tense Nazism components. The material might examine the malice that festers within one person and cascades over into another, along with the inherent malice that innately brews within people, but the scholarly pondering that it facilitates at its launch doesn't line up with the cluttered, empty-handed twists that pivot the film full-circle.
Video and Audio:
Apt Pupil arrives from Image Entertainment in a 2.35:1 1080p AVC encode that occasionally leans towards a warm and dusty appearance, but wears its late-'90s film presence proudly in high-definition. It's clear and often quite sharp, especially in the interior shots within Dussander's house, while the contrast regularly grabs at deep browns and blues for an appropriate palette. The bitrate occasionally tiptoes over 30mbps, though it normally hovers right at the high-20s while rendering a few instances of pleasing color gradation -- fire in a stove, the sheen in a kitchen knife, the moody orange lighting in a basement. It creaks along with some of its vintage's harshness and occasionally appears somewhat flat, but Image's treatment offers a distortion-free and fairly satisfying presentation.
The English DTS HD Master Audio track carries a fair amount of oomph as well, often creating an involving sound design. Flushes of activity reach to the rear channels -- the showering of rain, the crash of a table, the ambiance of a moving bus -- while John Ottman's score aggressively moves across the channels to bolster the suspense. The persistent dialogue hones in on the center channel, occasionally showing a bit of lower-frequency attention during gruffer vocals from both McKellen and Renfro, though the bass channel only receives a small amount of wash-off. English SDH and Spanish subtitles accompany the Master Audio track.
All that's been made available here is a classic presskit-level Making of Apt Pupil (6:31, 4x3 SD MPEG-2) featurette that's noteworthy for the classic surface-level interviews with Brad Renfro, Ian McKellen, and Bryan Singer, as well as a Theatrical Trailer (2:28, HD MPEG-2).
Apt Pupil offers a semi-consistent stream of suspense and flickers of pensive, malevolent thought within the biting exchanges between high-schooler Todd and hidden Nazi war criminal Kurt Dussander. However, Bryan Singer's tonally ambitious adaptation of Stephen King's novella lacks the focus and deeper level of darker stimulation to make it distinctive, coming together into well-made, clearly-shot dramatic thriller that doesn't dig as deep into its satchel of intellect as it could've. Image Entertainment's disc does present the film rather well on an audiovisual front, which will please fans, but most will suffice with a Rental.