The holocaust is one horror Stephen King didn’t invent. But he did scare up a new psychological use for that chapter in the long history of human capacity for atrocity. “Apt Pupil,” based on a 16-year-old King novella, is about the untamed evil that exists in the hearts of adolescent boys, even in boys as all-American as Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro). Todd is a top high school student whose interest in Hitler-era Nazism goes far beyond what’s covered in history class. Immersing himself in the kind of obsessive study other disaffected teenagers give to “South Park” or Marilyn Manson, he pieces together that the local resident who calls himself Arthur Denker is actually Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), a former SS officer. And with the dead-eyed sangfroid only a 16-year-old suburbanite can pull off (and which “Sleepers”‘ Renfro pulls off with unnerving believability), Todd confronts Dussander and blackmails him: He won’t turn the hidden Nazi in if the old man will tell the young man detailed stories about the machinery of inhumanity.
Director Bryan Singer is an intriguing match for this tricky material. “The Usual Suspects” (1995) showcased his visual flair and his aptitude for handling a plot built on a puzzle, but that film was a cold, showy piece of work. With “Apt Pupil,” the director takes a stand — the face of everyday evil rides a bike, plays basketball, and dreams of gas showers — and it’s in the slow transfusion of Dussander’s infamous criminality to Todd’s bad veins that Singer tells a story with serious moral resonance.
This one is a kind of puzzle too, and patience is required to get past some of the director’s more baroque cinematic touches, decorating the story’s dark center with visual furbelows (Dussander watches “Mr. Magoo” on TV) and aural gimmicks (the famous “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde blares before one particularly bloody scene). Patience, though, brings rewards. Apt Pupil doesn’t pan out as a hunted-Nazi thriller, although Dussander — chillingly interpreted by McKellen, who’s spectacular in every role these days — at one point goose-steps in an old SS uniform. Neither is it a full-tilt Stephen King thriller, particularly after first-time screenwriter Brandon Boyce softens up the violence of the author’s much more murderous text.
But absorb “Apt Pupil” as a student-teacher parable, a shaping-of-character tale about an unusual Nazi suspect and an alienated kid as American as apple strudel, and you’re in for a start more disturbing than anything Keyser Söze could provide.