Reuniting Donald Sutherland with the screenwriter of Don’t Look Now (Allan Scott is co-writer here), Apprentice to Murder is a low-key tale of superstition and the supernatural set in 1920s Dutch Pennsylvania that doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to say.
Inspired by a real court case and based on actual events, Rob Lowe’s younger brother Chad stars as sixteen-year-old Billy Kelly, a mildly Aspergic young man who falls in with co-worker Alice (Sara), a local girl who dreams of running away to Philadelphia to become a typist. Alice is currently living in the boarding house which also provides a roof over the head of uncertified religious “powwow” doctor John Reese (Sutherland), and when the artistically gifted Billy meets the equally socially awkward Reese, the older man takes him on as an apprentice.
After a rather clumsy opening, this is all quite sensitively handled. Billy’s apparent condition is exposited subtly and realistically through his actions and interests; although it’s obvious from the beginning that Alice has taken a romantic interest, Billy misses the clues until she pretty much gives herself to him. This is very much the story of a triangle, however, with Reese just as interested for obviously entirely different reasons. The relationships between the characters are never unnecessarily spelled out, and it’s nice to see the narrative evolving almost completely free of the usual storytelling clichés.
While it’s a tone the film retains more or less throughout, making it rather more thoughtful than the lurid religious potboiler the promotion might suggest, this also means there’s never a sense of the story really taking flight; it just kind of trudges along until the two powwows are arrested, and we don’t even get to see the court case that prompted the film in the first place. Instead, there’s a reasonable ambiguity about whether Reese sees in Billy a likeminded spirit or an easily manipulated young mark, but this isn’t resolved either, inviting us to come entirely to our own conclusions. The one moment during which the other ambiguity - whether Reese’s fight against evil is genuine or simply in his imagination - appears to get a definitive answer during the climactic confrontation is thankfully later revealed to have been the film depicting the incident from the doctor’s point of view. It’s good that the film doesn’t provide easy answers, but for all its pretty cinematography and solid performances (especially from Sutherland and Lowe Junior), you feel the reason it’s not giving any is because it isn’t sure itself.
The picture on this Blu-ray edition is clear and sharp, and for such an undistinguished film there’s a wealth of albeit inessential extras. But this is no The Wicker Man, so temper your curiosity accordingly.
Extras: commentary track, three interviews
REVIEW: APPRENTICE TO MURDER / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: RALPH L. THOMAS / SCREENPLAY: ALLAN SCOTT, WESLEY MOORE / STARRING: DONALD SUTHERLAND, CHAD LOWE, MIA SARA, KNUT HUSEBØ, RUTANYA ALDA, EDDIE JONES / RELEASE DATE: 20TH AUGUST