Given carte blanche after the success of The Usual Suspects, director Bryan Singer’s next move was to take on this King story about a boy who discovers that his neighbor is a fugitive Nazi war criminal. Instead of turning him in, Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) extorts the man, Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), into teaching him what it felt like to wield power in Hitler’s Germany.
It’s a story that seems to define fascism not just as a political ideology but as a communicable disease. The impulse is already latent in the boy, but learning from the man turns him into a full-fledged monster, one who quickly becomes an expert in masking his true intentions and exploiting others’ weaknesses. The virus may lie dormant for decades, but it never dies. The film’s most chilling moment comes when the kid gets the man to put on his old SS uniform, then makes him goosestep and salute; after a few awkward steps, the stiff arm and leg movements of his youth suddenly come back to him. Time is erased, and there’s a real live Nazi in the kitchen.
McKellen brings his usual wit and craftiness to the role of the grumpy neighbor with the vicious past, but the film’s revelation is Renfro; the wide-eyed kid from The Client slips all too easily into the role of fascist-in-training. His icy turn is a reminder that King doesn’t need to go otherworldly to find something perfectly scary in ordinary human nature.
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