A thriller that is about as exciting as its title
Ben Affleck stars in this accountancy thriller that doesn’t add up.What happens when you take a film about maths, add a couple of A-list actors, divide the screen-time up unequally between them, multiply any reasonable amount of flashbacks and also subtract most of the common sense, chemistry and innovation from a film? It’s not that difficult an equation, and the answer is The Accountant.Affleck plays Christian Wolff, an autistic accountant trained in martial arts (as any accountant worth his salt is). Christian’s struggles with social cues, bullies and getting absorbed in mathematics are shown in a series of formulaic flashbacks that does little to quell the overwhelming sense that this film is going to be as exciting as it sounds.
Christian uses his penchant for complicated accountancy to help out with the unscrupulous books of various organised criminals – an act which, wouldn’t you know it, gets him into a bit of bother. His gangster friends alert the treasury department, and after some unwanted attention from Ray King (J.K. Simmons) and Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) Christian decides he’s going to try and clean up his act a bit.
Although the thriller narrative from here does get a bit more complex, it’s pretty clear from about a third of the way in what’s going on with The Accountant. It’s a textbook action movie – car chase, check, punches thrown, check, shooting, check – but it thinks it’s oh-so clever. It’s that annoying kid in the school who always put his hand up in class without ever knowing the actual answer. A seemingly never-ending slew of flashbacks are scattered throughout the film, introducing so many sob stories you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d fallen asleep and woken up during an episode of The X Factor.
All the characters – the treasury department investigators, the criminals, Christian’s relatives – are given a backstory that eventually leads into the painfully over-manipulated climax. While there are tons of films that show the power of a well-used flashback (from classics like Citizen Kane to real classics like The Usual Suspects), The Accountant seems to use the flashback as an easy way out of complicated character development. Every now and then there’ll be an expository scene tossed in between action scenes with most of the character motivation omitted altogether.
Although the use of flashbacks is, frankly, disturbing, and the arc of the story is let down by a lack of explanation and too many bizarre coincidences, there are still plenty of redeeming moments. Anna Kendrick as junior accountant Dana is a particular highlight, making the most of a lacklustre role. Dana helps uncover a scandal at a robotics company Christian takes on as a supposedly legit client. Kendrick is likeable, funny and works well with Affleck – the two share a chemistry and the relationship between their characters is one of the many examples of an underwritten plot point. Simmons is typically excellent opposite Affleck as his financial nemesis, while John Lithgow is strong as a shady robotics executive.
It’s a textbook action movie – car chase, check, punches thrown, check, shooting, check – but it thinks it’s oh-so clever
Affleck himself is good as Christian, but can’t ever quite shake that whole Bruce Wayne vibe. For some inexplicable reason, Christian’s father decided that the best way for his autistic son to survive in the world would be to learn martial arts with a bunch of murderous monks (Batman Begins, anyone?) The film’s treatment of autism is interesting, and only adds to the almost-okay-but-not-quite feel of the thing. On the one hand it gets a lot of things spot on about the condition: Christian has trouble deciphering humour and irony, difficulty with eye contact and struggles with complex social cues. But then the concept that Christian’s autism is a) a superpower and b) something he needs serious combat training to compensate for is pretty problematic. The back-and-forth between action movie about Ben Affleck the emotionless killing machine and thriller about Ben Affleck the autistic maths wizard feels disjointed, and the frequent flashbacks (did I mention the flashbacks?) do nothing to bring cohesion to the storyline.
There’s an awkward epilogue that feels very educational and tries pretty hard to make you forget all the weird and potentially offensive stuff about autism that’s gone before. The idea that autism means Christian has to militarise himself, associate with criminals and beat other people to pulp with his bare hands isn’t particularly enlightened. Not only that, but it doesn’t do much for the film – the constant struggle between thriller and killer doesn’t ever really get going, and if it weren’t for decent performances from the ensemble it wouldn’t really be much good at all.
The ‘Hollywoodisation’ of autism has been going on for a long time now, and The Accountant will do nothing to educate people or bring a particularly accurate depiction to the screen. In order to function in society, Christian has to be a numerical savant and a ruthless killer. The autism narrative is ill at ease with the complicated revenge plot at the heart of the movie, and the pretentiousness of the entire film permeates every clichéd scene (the one with the maths whizz writing equations on a piece of glass is here, of course).
So, you take some decent performances, an ill-conceived depiction of autism, a plot that’s either over-thought or under-thought (I’m genuinely not sure) and a gallon of self-righteousness and add it together… what’s the solution? Frustration. While it’s watchable, with good performances and just about enough plot to keep you from tearing your hair out until about two thirds of the way in, it’s not anyone’s best work. The sum of The Accountant’s parts is frustration – frustration at its disjointedness, at its bizarre pacing, at its under use of some compelling characters, and its portrayal of autism – a condition that you’d think is known well enough to avoid being Hollywood fodder.
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