Here’s a movie about an accountant on the autism spectrum. I’m an Aspergian who works in medical billing for a living. I’m frankly ashamed that it’s taken me so long to get to this movie, but the timing never worked out and the reviews were less than stellar. So I had to wait until its first run was practically over and the film was on its way to the second-run theaters. Which is fortunate, because the film was just about that level of quality.
The Accountant is the story of Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), who took his alias from a famous mathematician. If he ever has a real name, we never learn what it is. Raised by a borderline-abusive father in the military (Robert C. Treveiler), Christian moved all over the world on a constant basis. And at every step, he was trained by the finest martial arts badasses in the region. Maybe Christian’s dad didn’t understand what it meant to live with autism, or maybe he didn’t want to understand, but he was determined not to coddle his son and he wasn’t going to raise a victim.
Flash forward to when Christian is grown. To make a very long story short (too late!), Christian is now a freelance accountant. You may already know from the trailers that he’s worked the books for a variety of criminal organizations all over the world, but when we first meet him in the film, he’s helping a couple of sweet old elderly farmers (Ron Prather and Susan Williams) out of bankruptcy. So from the look of things, Christian is someone primarily interested in numbers rather than whom the client is.
So it is that instead of going to work for another criminal cartel, Christian decides to lay low by taking a job for a robotics firm. It seems that some young new hire in accounting (Dana Cummings, played by Anna Kendrick) accidentally found an irregularity in the books and Christian has been brought in for an independent audit to make sure everything checks out. Except that Christian doesn’t know this robotic firm has financial ties to some unspecified criminal activity, and said criminals don’t know about Christian’s background in corpse manufacturing. So mercenaries are sent in to take out Christian and Dana, and we’re off to the races.
I’m reminded of an old pearl of wisdom among writers. To paraphrase, a writer needs to ask if a given story takes place in the most interesting time in the life of the protagonist. And given the life this particular protagonist has lived, I can safely state that the answer in this case is a big fat negative. Why the hell are we watching Christian uncook the books for a robotics company, accidentally stumbling into a criminal enterprise that’s completely unprepared for him, when we know for a fact that he’s already dealt with some of the most dangerous people in the world? It significantly undercuts the stakes of the plot, which is where Dana comes in.
Dana, alas, is a character who spectacularly fails the Sexy Lamp Test. She makes a strong impression in the first act, she’s carted around like luggage in the second act, and she’s pretty much wholly absent through the third act. She has no agency whatsoever. Though she’s never kidnapped and the filmmakers quite wisely resisted the urge to throw in a romance subplot, so there’s that.
And all credit to Anna Kendrick, she did the best she could with what she had. The character had to be someone so endearingly sweet and innocent that Christian would want to abandon his precious routine and save her life after only having known her a week, and Kendrick totally makes that work. She also gets a neat little monologue about how everyone only wants to fit in, and different people have different ways of going about that. It’s one of the precious few functional moments of commentary on mental illnesses and social disorders.
The movie seems to make a sincere effort at making a statement about people and children on the autism spectrum, and I of course respect that intention. But I’d respect it a lot more if the filmmakers explored the subject with any amount of depth, instead of throwing it in with all the other shit going on in this film. Seriously, the filmmakers tried to shoehorn in more backstory about its protagonist than the first three Jason Bourne films combined, and all those flashbacks wreak havoc on the pacing. I won’t even get started on Christian and his moral code, mostly because the film only briefly mentions it without going into detail about what that code supposedly is. Oh, and then there’s the subplot in which J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson play a couple of feds trying to track down Christian — it turns out that the whole subplot serves absolutely no purpose except to crowbar in even more backstory about our title character.
Oh, and one of the film’s major statements about autism comes at the denouement, not five minutes after a bloody climax in which we see at least a dozen mercenaries get makeovers by way of high-velocity transcortical lead therapy. So there’s that.
The action in this film is quite impressive, for the most part. The climax takes place in near-total darkness and there’s a chase scene shot in unwatchable shaky-cam, but the choreography is good and most of the kills are sufficiently enthralling. It certainly helps that Gavin O’Connor knows how to pace a good action scene and Ben Affleck is more than capable of selling himself as a badass. Even so, I wasn’t entirely sold on Affleck’s performance.
The obvious point of comparison is Affleck’s recent turn as Bruce Wayne, another brooding genius who masquerades as an unassuming person when he isn’t punching in faces. But in those scenes when Christian is living out his daily routine with his autistic quirks, I was more forcibly reminded of Affleck’s turn as Matt Murdock. And I don’t think anybody wanted or needed that.
(Side note: Has anyone done some analysis on whether Bruce Wayne could be somewhere on the autism spectrum? Because seriously, that might explain a lot.)
More importantly, this is a character who should feel a lifetime’s worth of pain because of his inability to really connect with anyone. Christian needed to be someone unassuming and withdrawn until everyone realizes too late that he’s the last man anyone should fuck with. Charlie Cox (another Matt Murdock) could’ve delivered that balance. Maybe even John Krasinski could’ve done it. But Ben Affleck has a look and a persona so deeply entrenched in “brooding badass” that there was never any chance we’d be seeing that kind of pathos.
Christian has a line in the trailer, and it’s also in the movie: “I have trouble socializing with people, but I want to.” Speaking as somebody who actually has high-functioning Asperger’s and has felt that sentiment through literally every waking moment (and more than a few sleeping moments) of the last twenty years, I can tell you that Affleck just plain didn’t sell it. This sort of thing simply isn’t a tool in his kit. Not that he isn’t a good actor, but it’s outside his range by a long shot.
It’s a shame because every other actor was beautifully cast. In addition to the aforementioned Anna Kendrick, we’ve got John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor working miracles with very little screen time. Cynthia Addai-Robinson barely has any film work to her credit so far, but she holds the screen beautifully. J.K. Simmons doesn’t really do anything new, but it was still a great pleasure to see him play another old wiseass J.K. Simmons character.
(Side note: Simmons and Affleck only get one scene together, but that one scene had me itching to see the both of them as Batman and Commissioner Gordon in the near future.)
But the MVP of the supporting cast is easily Jon Bernthal, here playing the mercenary foil to our protagonist. It should go without saying that when Jon Bernthal shows up (with very few exceptions, such as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), shit’s about to get real, and that’s exactly what happens here. Of course he plays a character so charismatic and intimidating that you instinctively know he doesn’t make idle threats. But what makes it even better is that again, Bernthal’s character and Affleck’s character don’t know a single thing about each other at first. And as the two of them start to realize what they’re each up against, the interplay between them starts to take a novel direction that was both inspired and compelling to watch.
The Accountant is overstuffed and unfocused, which makes for a sadly uneven film. The plot is drowned in unnecessary exposition, and Ben Affleck — while certainly a thrill to watch — doesn’t have the skill set or the screen presence to effectively portray what life with autism is like. As an unfortunate side effect, the film’s central thematic statements about autism barely register as anything more than an afterthought. Even so, the rest of the cast is wonderful, and there are some genuinely enjoyable moments.
At its best, the film is entertaining. At its worst, the film is only mediocre. I’d say that’s enough to recommend a second-run viewing at least.