Friday, December 26, 2008

Bryan Singer retrospective - APT PUPIL (1998)

After the award ceremonies and the commercial success of THE USUAL SUSPECTS everyone was waiting to see what director Bryan Singer would do next. The weight of expectation bore down heavily on his 1998 flick APT PUPIL, which is a tremendous shame, because while it's no pantheon movie, it looks weaker than it objectively is in comparison to THE USUAL SUSPECTS.

The movie is based on a novella by Stephen King in which an intelligent teenager called Todd (Brad Renfro) realises that an old man called Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellan) in his neighbourhood is actually a Nazi war criminal in hiding. Rather than shop the old man to the cops, Todd decides to exploit the him, trading silence in exchange for lurid stories of concentration camps. Todd thinks he's the dominant partner in this twisted relationship, trying to humiliate Kurt by making him wear an SS uniform while he drills him. But as Todd's fetish grows, Kurt becomes the dominant partner, as he can choose to feed the addiction or not. Moreover, Kurt is now posing as Todd's grandfather, covering for Todd at school as his grades are now suffering. The power game is reversed.

All of this makes for an intelligent and frightening psychological thriller. The problem comes in the final reels when the two-handed character study is shoe-horned into a lurid and somewhat unnecessary ending. It's as if the film-makers thought that the movie needed some action - some sort of genre conformist ending. The only other thing I would say about APT PUPIL is that what makes it still worth viewing are the two central performances and the original conceit by Stephen King. I was disappointed then and now by the fact that Bryan Singer hadn't given the material a particular visual style or indeed any other kind of directorial thumb-print. APT PUPIL struck me as a movie made by a director-for-hire rather than an auteur.

APT PUPIL played Venice and Toronto 1997 and was released in 1998 and 1999.

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