A highly functioning form of autism: The Accountant

The Accountant (2016)

A frustrating crime thriller that could have been great but instead is almost ruined by a third act that suffers from many silly narrative decisions

The Accountant


Di­rect­ed by Gavin O’Connor. Writ­ten by Bill Dubuque. Star­ring Ben Af­fleck, Anna Kendrick, J. K. Sim­mons, Jon Bern­thal, Jef­frey Tam­bor, Cyn­thia Ad­dai-Robin­son, John Lith­gow, Jean Smart, Andy Um­berg­er and Al­i­son Wright.

The Ac­coun­tant is a frus­trat­ing movie that could have been great but un­for­tu­nate­ly is not. In fact, the very idea of an autis­tic ac­coun­tant with Ja­son Bourne skills is pret­ty amus­ing in it­self (or, should I say, an autis­tic Ja­son Bourne with ac­count­ing skills?) I guess math can be a su­per­pow­er too, right? As strange as it may seem, though, the nar­ra­tive is di­rect and ef­fec­tive enough to work for the most part — that is, un­til it de­cides to go into self-de­struc­tion mode in the third act. Some peo­ple do know how to kill the fun.

Writ­ten by Bill Dubuque, who was also re­spon­si­ble for the ter­ri­ble The Judge (2014), The Ac­coun­tant fol­lows CPA and math­e­mat­i­cal ge­nius Chris­t­ian Wolff (Ben Af­fleck) who works as a free­lance ac­coun­tant for many dan­ger­ous crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions in the world. When Ray­mond King (J. K. Sim­mons), di­rec­tor of fi­nan­cial crimes for the Trea­sury De­part­ment, re­cruits an­a­lyst Mary­beth Med­i­na (Cyn­thia Ad­dai-Robin­son) to help him iden­ti­fy and cap­ture the mys­te­ri­ous ac­coun­tant, Chris­t­ian takes on a le­gal as­sign­ment: to au­dit a state-of-the-art ro­bot­ics cor­po­ra­tion where ac­coun­tant Dana Cum­mings (Anna Kendrick) has come across sev­er­al fi­nan­cial dis­crep­an­cies. But as Chris­t­ian goes through the books, an As­sas­sin (Jon Bern­thal) shows up in his way to make sure that he doesn’t get to the truth.

With this kind of plot that may sound de­riv­a­tive, The Ac­coun­tant has an ad­van­tage: the way it makes us be­lieve that a func­tion­al autis­tic ac­coun­tant would have learned mar­tial arts in In­done­sia and be­come a killing ma­chine with a crys­talline, ra­zor-sharp in­tel­li­gence. An­ti­so­cial and sullen (“I don’t dis­cuss client’s busi­ness”), Chris­t­ian speaks with a flat, un­emo­tion­al voice and is ap­par­ent­ly in­ca­pable of un­der­stand­ing feel­ings (in the past he even learned how to fake them) or even jokes and id­iomat­ic ex­pres­sions — and Ben Af­fleck does a sol­id job to show his dis­com­fort when en­gag­ing in con­ver­sa­tions, usu­al­ly with some small tics like tap­ping his fin­gers on a desk or avert­ing his eyes from his in­ter­locu­tors.

In fact, the most en­ter­tain­ing in the movie is to wit­ness the ex­tent of his tal­ents, both phys­i­cal and men­tal. Chris­t­ian has an ex­tra­or­di­nary aim and a tremen­dous dis­ci­pline to main­tain his psy­cho­log­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty by sat­u­rat­ing his brain every­day with stress­ful stim­uli like loud sounds, strobe lights and even phys­i­cal pain be­fore tak­ing his med­ica­tion (a con­tin­u­a­tion of his father’s ef­forts to force him to over­come his lim­i­ta­tions) — and it is es­pe­cial­ly cu­ri­ous to see that his hu­man tar­gets seem to be as face­less to his sharp eyes as his prac­tice tar­gets. It’s pre­cise­ly be­cause of all that that his sud­den des­per­ate de­ci­sion to help Dana ap­pears to be in­co­her­ent and in­com­pat­i­ble with his char­ac­ter when he learns that her life is in dan­ger.

But on a sec­ond look, this con­tra­dic­tion gives him nu­ance and makes him more in­trigu­ing when we re­al­ize that he is ca­pa­ble of emo­tion­al at­tach­ment (let’s be hon­est, not be­ing would be pret­ty of­fen­sive, but let me come back to that point in the last para­graph). Sure, he de­vel­ops a bond with Dana that is too abrupt to ring true, but I like that. I guess those who try the hard­est to sup­press their feel­ings are the ones who be­come their eas­i­est prey. This is an in­ter­est­ing con­trast with the char­ac­ter of the As­sas­sin, who has a sharp mind too but also a hi­lar­i­ous, cheeky sense of hu­mor and bursts of ag­gres­sive­ness — and if Bern­thal does a nice work, the rest of the cast doesn’t stay be­hind (nor do they stand out, ac­tu­al­ly). They’re all just OK.

When it comes to di­rec­tor Gavin O’Connor, whose work in­cludes the de­cent ef­forts War­rior (2011) and Jane Got a Gun (2016), he does a fine job to cre­ate a re­al­is­tic feel to such an ab­surd sto­ry (this is the post-Ja­son Bourne era af­ter all, right?) Sure, the jux­ta­po­si­tion of im­ages that show Christian’s think­ing process amid a con­fu­sion of whis­pers and fol­lowed by an in­tense score is not orig­i­nal, but works. The ac­tion scenes are also shot in an in­tense way, with a good sound de­sign, and I like how O’Connor makes Chris­t­ian more men­ac­ing and mys­te­ri­ous in the line of fire by keep­ing his face usu­al­ly off screen or out of fo­cus, es­pe­cial­ly in a scene when he speaks to King from be­hind, point­ing a gun at him. Gavin is just as com­posed as his char­ac­ter.

And it helps that Dubuque’s script holds our at­ten­tion with its di­rect di­a­logue and firm struc­ture — that, like I said, be­fore it all goes to shit in a ter­ri­ble third act full of ex­po­si­tion and ridicu­lous twists. There is an ex­ten­sive mono­logue that nev­er finds any good jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for so much use­less in­for­ma­tion about a pre­vi­ous en­counter be­tween King and the ac­coun­tant. The movie sim­ply stops, and it’s easy to see that it doesn’t serve any ac­tu­al pur­pose. What comes af­ter — a se­ries of rev­e­la­tions lead­ing to a Big Main Twist in the end — is an in­sult. Of course every­one can see it com­ing from the be­gin­ning, but I hoped the movie wouldn’t give in to that. It is ba­si­cal­ly a lot of fam­i­ly soap-opera stu­pid­i­ty that al­most ru­ins every­thing.

But, to be hon­est, what can we ex­pect from a screen­writer who doesn’t mind com­ing up with some­thing this ter­ri­bly of­fen­sive about peo­ple with autism spec­trum dis­or­der, vir­tu­al­ly com­par­ing them to psy­chopaths and show­ing them as dan­gers to so­ci­ety? In oth­er words, it is like hav­ing Rain Man be­come an in­de­struc­tible killer like Ja­son Bourne be­cause he is the way he is — and if that doesn’t sound of­fen­sive enough, wait un­til you see the movie’s ugly last scene and rev­e­la­tion. It bor­ders on fas­cism. At least, it is over be­fore the dam­age is worse.

Oc­to­ber 26, 2016


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