The Accountant is sort of an odd duck of a movie. On the one hand–and most successfully–it’s an action thriller. On the other hand, its hero is autistic. Much of the movie seems to be suggesting a spectacularly ill-conceived approach to raising an autistic child. But the autistic adult that emerges from that approach seems reasonably high-functioning. And good at violence. So: mixed bag.
In a way, the movie could be titled Rain Man: Action Hero. It perpetuates the stereotype that autistic equals math savant. In fact, as I understand it, autistic people are as diverse as the neurotypical population are. I suspect that people who know more about autism than I do might not like this movie very much; might even dislike it intensely.
Ben Affleck plays, well, let’s call him “Christian Wolff,” though the movie takes some pains to point out that that’s not his real name. He’s autistic. He’s a superstar forensic accountant, a guy with uncommon abilities to concentrate on, memorize and synthesize complex financial records, who seems mostly to work for the most dangerous criminal enterprises, but sometimes just for common-or-garden corporate bad guys. He can take fifteen years worth of corporate financial records and over the course of a single night, uncover how much money is being embezzled, and by whom. This skill set tends to make certain highly vicious clients angry, so it’s helpful that he’s also good at violence. He’s an exceptionally well trained martial artist, a sniper of uncommon accuracy, in addition to elite level Navy-SEAL/Army Ranger/Green Beret type combat skills.
Like many autistics, Christian has certain sensory sensitivities, to light and sound, which he overcomes through “stimming,” a strategy of sensory overload. Every night at 9:41, he subjects himself to 20 minutes of screamingly loud death metal music, combined with strobe lights, while stroking his legs with a rolling pin. He maintains a small accounting office, and in an early scene, helps an elderly couple resolve their tax bill creatively. He copes. He may miss non-verbal cues from time to time, but he can function. And then all the shooting starts.
He gets a new client, a brother-and-sister owned robotics firm (John Lithgow and Jean Smart). An irregularity has been discovered by a junior accountant there, Dana (Anna Kendrick). He plows through the company’s records, writing on the wall with magic markers the way movies always show math geeks doing, code for ‘genius at work.’ When Dana sees it all, she immediately gets it. We sense that Christian is charmed. He’s met a kindred spirit.
Honestly, Anna Kendrick saves this movie. It’s a dark action thriller, full of intense conversations between menacing bureaucrats (including J. K. Simmons, as a Treasury Agent, and Cynthia Addai-Robinson as his colleague). Kendrick is so much more alive than any of the other characters, charming and funny. The movie just barely hints at a possible romance between Christian and Dana, and I wish they’d actually gone there, not because it needs a romance, but because it would have given Anna Kendrick more screen time.
Okay, so the robotics company sends hit men after Dana, and Christian fights them all off, and more violence ensues, pitting Affleck’s merciless efficiency against Jon Bernthal’s Brax, a ruthless hit man for hire. And the action sequences were competently rendered, if a bit John Wick-ish. (The new trend seems to be the headshot–you knock the bad guy down, shoot him in the chest, then put him away with one shot to the forehead).
But what I found fascinating were the movie’s many flashback sequences, in which we see Christian’s upbringing. His father, played by Robert C. Treveiler, is a military officer, who believes in a code of toughness. Recognizing that his autistic son is different, and recognizing that people who are different are more often bullied, he trains both his boys to fight. They get lessons from martial arts experts. They get advanced combat training. Young Christian becomes a fighting machine, and so does his younger brother.
Well, is that the way to raise an autistic kid? To fight, and then to fight some more? I doubt it. But the movie could be seen as making an argument. This world’s a tough and violent place, and autistic people can easily be victimized, as can anyone unusual. Do you train a ten-year old the way you’d train a Navy SEAL? No, obviously. But maybe this movie is trying to make a strong anti-coddling statement. If so, look how Affleck’s character turns out? In constant danger, yes. But also wealthy, successful, a refined owner of paintings by Pollock and Degas. Able to communicate, to meet someone, to chat, to connect, at least somewhat. And also able to blow off a guy’s head at 500 yards, then sneak closer, and kill with his bare hands.
I think it kind of depends on how seriously to take this. It’s basically Taken (“I have a certain set of skills”), and Taken isn’t a movie anyone would bother, you know, studying. Bill Dubuque’s screenplay concludes with two plot twist reveals, one of which I completely missed and had to have my wife explain to me (“Oh, that’s what was going on there!”). Those are always fun, and that’s the thing; if you don’t overthink it, this is an entertaining and exciting action movie.
A profound commentary on autism? Certainly not. Though baby steps towards some kind of comment seems to be buried amidst the shooting and stabbing and punching. Take the movie seriously, and it all falls apart. But relax with it, on a cold fall day, and you’ll probably have a guilty-pleasure good time.