“You deserve wow”
This is one of those cases where a film might have benefited from a smaller budget. Where you wish Warner Bros.’s independent shingle didn’t shutter in 2008. It’s not like $44 million is a huge sum of money—not by Hollywood standards anyway—but if you cut it in half, maybe lose the star power of Ben Affleck, and take things to a grittier, less-polished place, The Accountant could prove the kind of hit studios covet after John Wick took the box office by storm two years back. Bill Dubuque‘s screenplay isn’t without its faults and yet it takes the elite assassin concept to a different enough place to intrigue nonetheless. Christian Wolff (Affleck) wasn’t supposed to be a killer, but becoming one might have saved his life.
The autistic angle is where things get a little shaky because it is Ben Affleck. Cast a no-name or someone with less high-profile exposure (see Hugh Dancy doing Asperger’s in Adam) and it simply becomes more believable than steely-faced Batfleck diverting his eyes. Despite not doing a bad job, his inclusion does make it easier for the audience to laugh at certain situations where the character’s ailment is given the ability to be humorous—an issue that can’t help being insensitive considering the large role autism plays. Dubuque and director Gavin O’Connor lean on Wolff’s awkwardness earning laughs too much for my comfort because you hope Hollywood wouldn’t exploit a serious disorder’s hardships for no reason other than injecting levity into a dramatic thriller’s darker tone.
It sometimes feels like this is exactly what Dubuque and O’Connor are doing, but thankfully it isn’t always. For the most part Wolff’s autism is treated, for lack of a better term, like a superpower. To the layperson it traps his intelligence behind rage-fueled tantrums and an OCD-level need to complete tasks presented to him. But if treated in a way where the afflicted can combat the struggles and, as Wolff’s father (Robert C. Treveiler) explains, peel back the layers holding his true potential back, anything is possible. Rather than let Jason Davis‘ neurologist help, however, Mr. Wolff utilizes his military position to train the boy with elite fighters and subsequently discover his threshold for remaining calm enough to problem solve without falling to pieces at each hiccup.
Where we meet him as an adult is at a desk opposite Chicago farmers looking to save a few bucks during tax season. Christian has learned to control himself enough to engage in public situations despite remaining blunt, exacting, and literal. We know he cooks books for an international rogue’s gallery of criminals, but somehow he’s retained a sense of morality and compassion to help this couple and make friends in the process. This is down time for him to keep his nose clean and work with legitimate clients such as tech magnate Lamar Black (John Lithgow). Black’s robotics lab’s accountant (Anna Kendrick‘s Dana Cummings) discovered millions of dollars missing from a balance sheet so Wolff is recruited to come in, seal the leak, and find the culprit.
It should be a by-the-books audit except that such a thing would prove excruciatingly boring. Instead the missing money sparks a chain reaction to introduce a hitman (Jon Bernthal‘s Braxton) silencing anyone too close to unraveling the truth. A ruthless killer with skill and smarts, Braxton’s own warped code provides a healthy dose of comedy in his interactions without pulling the trigger of his gun. And while he ultimately hones in on Christian and Dana, a third party rises up from the treasury department. Overseen by soon-to-be-retired Director Raymond King (J.K. Simmons), analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) gets tapped (blackmailed) to discover Wolff’s identity. With seven months left on the job, King wants nothing more than to put a name to the ghost that’s haunted him for years.
The filmmakers skillfully move back and forth between these three threads as they eventually converge into a climax with some intelligently crafted twists and turns. Some of the deflection utilized renders one or two of the reveals obvious, but there are a couple of other surprises in store thanks to a deft handle on shrouding Wolff’s initial motivations to kill. He has a younger brother, his parents, and a mentor in former criminal book cooker Francis Silverberg (Jeffrey Tambor) that are in the wind and a slew of clients with the resources to hire a guy like Braxton and smoke him out. Christian had been careful thus far in distancing himself from attachments (his lone accomplice is a monotone British accent over the phone). That’s all changed now.
Kendrick is perfectly cast as his foil because she brings her own level of awkwardness to the table for empathy and relatability. There are a couple exchanges between her and Affleck that hit upon his inability to read tone and sarcasm in a non-exploitative way. You get the sense that they are getting to know one another without preconceived notions and Dubuque correctly never lets the relationship become romantic besides a couple flirtations. The misguided humor arrives in the heat of battle with Affleck mowing people down during some intense action sequences before looking at those he saves with a smile and wave as he leaves. The laughter those instances earns made me cringe a bit because they feed autism’s “freak” stereotype. They’re laughing at him, not with.
It’s a minor squabble, especially considering the climax—when not supplying some fast-paced John Wick-like fight choreography—unravels into a comical exchange between killers and embezzler that makes you question the severity of previous scenes. Was The Accountant actually built to be a comedy? Perhaps that’s my whole issue with its Hollywood-ization. Tone down the silliness and let the taut cat and mouse chase at its back shine. Letting the humor permeate everything subverts the effectiveness of the premise and we feel the artifice of the decision from their refusal to go full Gross Pointe Blank. As it is I had fun, appreciated the complexities, and enjoyed some characters’ non-clichéd directions forward. It’s a good time at the movies, but I can’t stop thinking it could have been great.
Rating: R | Runtime: 128 minutes | Release Date: October 14th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Gavin O’Connor
Writer(s): Bill Dubuque