[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today at this link.]
The Accountant (Gavin O’Connor, 2016)
In The Accountant, the new action-thriller from director Gavin O’Connor (Jane Got a Gun) and screenwriter Bill Dubuque (The Judge), Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) plays Christian Wolff, a certified CPA by day who dons a cape and a mask to prowl the cities at … sorry, wrong movie, wrong character. No, Wolff wears no such obvious disguise, yet does lead a double life. As we quickly learn – within the first 10 minutes of the film, in fact – his mild façade hides a lucrative (and nefarious) career as an accountant to a global network of criminal operatives. When we first meet him, he’s living quietly in Illinois, under an alias (Wolff is not his real name, which we never learn), ready at a moment’s notice to disappear into his next persona. Somehow, on top of his brilliant work managing the books for gangsters and terrorists, he is also an expert in self-defense and a perfect shot. Imagine if James Bond worked the other side of the law, was a math genius, as well as autistic, and you’d have this movie: Casino Royale meets Casino meets Good Will Hunting (co-written by Affleck!) meets Rain Man. Presto, instant mish-mash.
The story doesn’t start with Affleck, however, but with a mysterious gangland killing that will only be explained later. We then flash back to 1989, where we find a family at a clinic in New Hampshire, struggling to deal with their older boy (of two) whose autistic behavior is more than they can handle. Husband and wife differ on how to deal with the child, a disagreement with profound later consequences. Jump ahead once more, to the present, and we’re in Washington, DC, where Department-of-Treasury supervisor Ray King (J.K. Simmons, Whiplash) assigns the task of discovering the identity of our mysterious accountant to new agent Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Amanda Waller on the CW’s Arrow). For much of the rest of the film, we cut between present-day Wolff, little-boy version of him (with brother and parents), and our friends at the Treasury, along with sundry other characters, incidental and otherwise. One such supporting player is Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect), a junior accountant at a legitimate company where Wolff takes a job as a break from his illegal affairs. Though at first she merely annoys Wolff, since his condition makes him wary around strangers, her bubbly quirkiness (Kendrick’s stock in trade) gradually thaws the ice around his heart.
Which brings us to the use of autism in the script. I confess to some confusion on the topic. On the one hand, it gives our protagonist something of an obstacle to overcome, since his initial manifestation of the condition is, as we witness it, debilitating. But as his evolution plays out over the course of the film, it becomes increasingly unclear what, if anything, our takeaway is supposed to be. Are all people with autism destined to live a dual existence, caught between good and evil? Is the only way forward through rigorous self-discipline, as taught to young “Christian” by his tough-love father? If looked at beyond the surface convenience of its dramatic purpose, autism is presented as both apple and serpent, imparting knowledge while tempting one down a path to sin.
That said, the film is actually a lot of fun, as thrillers go. Affleck is an appealing screen presence, as are Simmons, Addai-Robinson, Kendrick, and the rest of the cast, including Jon Bernthal (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) as a shadowy hitman who keeps getting in Affleck’s way. Beyond the potentially offensive portrayal of autism, the real problem with the movie is the overwhelming number of coincidences that drive the plot. Someone needs to tell O’Connor and Dubuque that when you build your story out of a web of serendipity, it cannot help but feel contrived and artificial. Given its slickly produced action sequences and gently funny rapport between Affleck and Kendrick, The Accountant is far more entertaining than it has any right to be, but it is also absolutely ridiculous, as well as almost unforgivably sentimental when we consider the criminal nature of the central enterprise. It has its pleasures, but they are guilty, indeed.