WASHINGTON, November 5, 2016 – From top to bottom, “The Accountant” is one strange movie. At first glance, this Warner Brothers release, directed by Gavin O’Connor, feels like an adaptation of something else. That’s a novel concept for this action thriller, in which an accountant takes on risky work for infamous clients and then does away with them either legally or extra-judicially. This film has “the launch of a series franchise” written all over it, which makes it in itself interesting, as it’s a relatively original concept.
“The Accountant” stars Ben Affleck as the film’s eponymous central character. At the start of the movie, Affleck’s “accountant” goes under the name Christian Wolff. But that turns out to be one of many aliases the accountant has used over the past 10 years.
Affleck/Wolff runs a fairly small CPA firm in Illinois, where he helps his clients get the best deal on their taxes to make life easier for them. We soon notice, however, that Christian is, well, a bit “different” from the rest of us, something that evolves into a major feature of this film.
Over the last several years, viewers may have noticed a trend in films, where more and more protagonists exhibit non-neurotypical traits that range from Asperger’s’ Syndrome to various manifestations of autism. Sometimes films will try to do this without naming the condition involved, particularly when it comes to autism. But “The Accountant” never shies away from addressing the kind of high-functioning flavor of autism that afflicts its unusual hero and, in many ways, is the secret to his power.
Having an autistic hero is a key part of this film’s high concept. Even though he has issues with social situations – it’s important to see how Christian copes with day-to-day life given, the social stigma that clings to his condition.
His affliction, if it is one in this film, is a signifier early on and is expressly developed as the film moves through Christian’s backstory via a series of pointed flashbacks. En route, this aspect of Christian’s character becomes even more interesting when the rest of his life takes shape.
At times the film feels a little ham fisted when it specifically explores the details of Christian’s manifestation of autism. Yet the movie does a reasonable job of showing how Christian copes with a world that isn’t generally well-suited for him, highlighting the techniques he has developed to assure he can function within a “normal” environment.
The various traits Christian has developed since childhood are meant to put people at ease when he feels they will find him off-putting. His efforts demonstrate that he isn’t cut off from the world but is, in fact, hyper-aware of everything around him. He’s clearly doing his best to navigate the almost unbearable onslaught of stimuli he encounters daily. Affleck’s ability to convincingly render his character’s singular focus helps immeasurably in selling the character.
One of Christian’s most interesting characteristics is that he apparently has no need to explain his actions. This leads to an ambiguity with regard to how Christian feels about the action thriller part of his life. But Christian simply goes about his business, sometimes with disturbingly mechanical efficiency even as the violence builds.
It’s that sense of repetition, of going through the motions of a familiar routine that allows the film to build an entire world around Christian’s character, an individual who is fairly impervious to nearly everyone around him. Because Christian, as a high-functioning autistic individual exhibits habitual routines in nearly everything he does, no one suspects anything more is afoot than what’s on the surface. This has the peculiar result of drawing interesting people into his life.
While the movie meticulously focuses on Christian as an autistic accountant with a double life as a virtually one man hit squad, it has higher ambitions as well. His clients, associates and targets are well-developed rather than two-dimensional figures. Every character within Christian’s orbit is on an equal footing, possessing significant depth, either explicit or implied. The meticulous beats and rhythms of Christian’s life and the film allow uncommonly deep interactions.
The movie’s plot begins as Ray King (J.K. Simmons), the Treasury Department’s Director in charge of financial crimes brings in analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) and strong arms her into helping him solve the mystery of “the Accountant,” the only ID Treasury has had for the mysterious Christian over the last several years. She eventually falls down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out who Christian is.
It’s important to the film that audience understands the character and motivations of everyone from King to Marybeth Medina to Francis Silverberg (Jeffrey Tambour), Christian’s one time cellmate, and to Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), the accountant who spots the bookkeeping error requiring Living Robotics to hire Christian to look into the problem.
The most telling character in this regard is the “the Assassin” (Jon Bernthal), who fills out the action film cliché role as Christian’s polar opposite. He doesn’t actually come face to face with Christian until the finale. But the writers clearly spent a good amount of time on the Assassin’s character, something that pays off handsomely at the end of the film.
“The Accountant’s” strength is built on this kind of narrative depth, particularly within the context of what’s really an action film. But at the same time, this same virtue can be the film’s biggest flaw, causing it to teeter and then collapse under its own weight.
That’s why “The Accountant” feels like it’s based on a novel. Various scenes and insights seem either to be missing or consigned to the cutting room floor due to running-time constraints. Even at that, the movie itself is still a little over two hours long. Yet it feels like it should be longer given how much the film wants to accomplish.
We are frustrated by a sense that more development and key details have been left out of the story for the sake of narrative economy. An example: there is little detail on exactly how Christian ended up in prison to meet Francis. Yet this encounter is a key event that sets the story in motion. For the audience, it feels as if crucial details are missing.
Also frustrating: Like an increasing number of superhero franchise films, this film is clearly a set up for a sequel—so clearly, in fact that, like some of those superhero films, we find the whole obvious process that much more annoying.
Still, the film does an exceptional job introducing its exceptionally original anti-hero. The filmmakers could just as easily have used Christian’s autism as window dressing or a simplistic plot device without delving too deeply into how it affects him and determines the pattern of his life.
Yet even though the film tends to implode as its third act commences, the care and skill of the filmmakers in bringing this multifaceted film to life is still impressive and admirable enough to make “The Accountant” an engaging affair.