It’s hard to believe that The Accountant is a real movie and not a sketch from a comedy program lampooning Hollywood’s tone deaf handling of autism. And yet this isn’t just a Hollywood production, it’s a major film with marquee talent telling the overly convoluted tale of an autistic accountant who is also a super-assassin. As a piece of storytelling, The Accountant tries to play everything close to the vest, saving all of its big reveals for the final third of the film in a series of confounding revelations that often come closer to comedy than suspense. For all of the bewildering decisions that factor into The Accountant, it’s schlocky entertainment factor can’t make up for it’s incredibly tone deaf portrayal of autism, one that is likely to perpetuate negative stereotypes.
Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, who works as an accountant outside in the rural part of Illinois. He runs a quaint little office in a strip mall, using his extensive knowledge of the tax code to find every possible deduction for his local clients. In Washington, Treasury officer Ray King (J.K. Simmons) has tried to piece together the true identity of Wolff, his visage having appeared in surveillance photos alongside the world’s worst criminals all over the globe. In order to uncover the clues of Wolff’s identity, King takes to blackmailing Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a young agent with a shady past, into investigating the trail of breadcrumbs as to Wolff’s identity and involvement with these nefarious forces across the globe. Meanwhile, an unnamed assassin (Jon Bernthal) is lurking in the shadows around Christian Wolff’s affairs as he begins a new job working at a robotics company headed up by Lamar Black (John Lithgow), at one point targeting Christian’s new co-worker and friend Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick). But when push comes to shove, this accountant crunches more than just numbers – he crunches bones.
It becomes hard to get invested in all the proceedings in director Gavin O’Connor’s film because the first half of the film is invested in establishing all the separate mysteries at the center of Bill Dubuque’s screenplay. Flashbacks to Christian’s past as an autistic child are meant to shed light on his behavior in the present. The reason Christian has a lethal set of skills that make him John Wick with exceptional math skills are from his domineering Army father (Robert C. Treveiler), who has his young son training in martial arts in Jakarta in one particular flashback. Oddly, the whole aspect of Christian being an accountant for the world’s worst criminals is only given a bit of lip service at the beginning, and much more screen time is dedicated to the mentorship of Francis Silverberg (Jeffrey Tambor), who teaches Christians all the tricks of the dirty money trade. All the back and forth of the film’s timeline fails to captivate as the story is more interesting in shrouding everything in mystery that there’s not even much of a framework to become invested in.
Maybe, just maybe, all the bewildering mysteries at the heart of The Accountant could be forgiven had the film contained just one reveal that was indeed shocking or even slightly surprising. It’s not for lack of trying, because The Accountant is a movie that has a lot of plates spinning but each one crashes in the exact manner as expected, which makes its postponement of reveals extremely vexing. While all the mysteries introduced and unresolved in the first two thirds of the movie are each underwhelming, the film’s commitment to inanity at its conclusion makes for absurdly entertaining moments. I sat there with my jaw dropped as the film lingered on one of the most obvious reveals in a movie this year. (In all honesty, I guessed this “twist” in a very early scene.) But there are other twists in the latter third that negate the motivations of the story’s beginning. It amounts to a movie that is built around an equation that doesn’t add up in the slightest. If only some math genius were at the heart of The Accountant.
Affleck does his best in a thankless role, one that will be defined by the neurological condition of its character than the performance itself (and rightfully so, honestly). The first half of the film it seems that there are painstaking measures taken to avoid defining Affleck’s character as autistic, though it’s made crystal clear later on. The Accountant takes another odd turn in the way it tries to turn Anna Kendrick’s Dana into a form of comic relief, utilizing the actress’ upbeat demeanor for giggles even though her character is forced on the lam after an attempt on her life. Sadly, Jon Bernthal’s performance, the most compelling in the film, is lost in the muddled construction of the narrative, and those compelling moments wind up few and far between. On the other side of the law, J.K. Simmons is his cool and steady self, and poor Cynthia Addai-Robinson is rarely given a chance to do much with her role as she sits at a desk analyzing audio or talking with an IRS agent searching for Christian’s identity.
Between The Accountant and The Darkness, the question left is whether or not genre films can handle the topic of autism in manner that doesn’t come across as crassly exploitative. At present, I’m inclined to say no. At least I can say that The Accountant does have its trashy thrills, though I wouldn’t exactly call the film thrilling. Those trashy thrills are rooted in the film’s multitude of misguided elements, many of which are simply bewildering from both a narrative and empathetic perspective. The Accountant is the type of movie where you wonder how, in 2016, nobody asked throughout the development process, “Uh, guys, are you sure about this?” At the very least, The Accountant isn’t the most misguided project to star Ben Affleck this year.
A muddled narrative wrapped around some problematic portrayals of autism, The Accountant more often feels like a sketch comedy skewering of Hollywood than a big budget movie featuring A-list talent.