Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Written by Bill Dubuque
Starring Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, Jean Smart and John Lithgow
Runtime: 128 minutes
Autism isn’t often regarded well, if at all, in the movies. Rain Man depicted a narrow view of it in Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond, a man who had seemingly preternatural math skills but almost no socialization skills, which does get autism right on one level. I Am Sam saw autism on an even more extreme level, where Sam could socialize and liked people but was unable to do much in society, which got autism right on a different level than Rain Man. The truth is that autism is multi-faceted and that is why it’s a spectrum disorder, one that someone can have and you’d never know it to someone who is non-verbal and prone to ticks and violent emotional outbursts. That’s why The Accountant worked for me where it leaves others cold.
The Accountant stars Ben Affleck as Christian Wolff, a man with high-functioning autism, who is a world-class accountant. His main clientele are the worst sorts of black money merchants in the world: arms dealers, drug kingpins and the like. He goes in and ‘uncooks the books’, tracking down embezzlers within the organizations. He also takes on corporate clients. He’s being tracked by U.S. Treasury Director Ray King (J. K. Simmons), who brings in Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson, best known as Amanda Waller on Arrow) to do the legwork on the investigation. While working a corporate job for a robotics company owned by Lamar Black (John Lithow), he meets Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), who found the initial bookkeeping error, and once he stumbles upon the real reason the books don’t add up a corporate assassin, Brax (Jon Bernthal, known as The Punisher on Daredevil and soon his own spin-off), is brought in to dispose of Wolff and Dana. Unfortunately for all involved, Wolff’s army combat psychologist father trained him in multiple forms of martial arts and combat, so Wolff is a one-man army.
Screenwriter Bill Dubuque does a commendable job describing and explaining autism to the audience by way of Christian’s parents. Taken at an early age to an institute that specialized in helping train children with autism for adult life, the disorder is explained with great care and sensitivity. This impressed me because my son is also a child with high-functioning autism (though I’ve not trained him in deadly combat), so it struck close to home. The story itself, while implausible, isn’t impossible. Dubuque understands the focus that people on the spectrum can display and doesn’t let the disorder define his character. The sub-plot with Simmons and Addai-Robinson does have a great leap in logic when the true nature of the investigation is revealed, but it’s not wholly outlandish and doesn’t ruin the main thrust of the film. He crafts his supporting characters well, though he spends most of his time on Wolff and in so doing he creates a well-rounded example of what someone on the autism spectrum can accomplish (no all of them have the capacity to be unstoppable killing machines, but the potential is there, as it is with normally developed/ing people). Dubuque goes an additional mile to accurately represent the reactions to people on the spectrum. When someone doesn’t know another is a person with autism, their reaction is one born of ignorance and an incapacity to process those who are different. Dubuque doesn’t shy away from this treatment but also goes to great lengths to show how wrong these snap judgements are.
Director Gavin O’Connor does an excellent job staging the action sequences, utilizing Wolff’s detached nature to give him a tactical advantage (always analyzing the situation). On top of the action sequences, O’Connor gives Affleck the space in the quieter moments to really shine and doesn’t back away from the well-written and non-invasive exposition. The actions scenes, though well staged, are a bit shopworn. They don’t vary much from the Bourne/Bond model of action, but O’Connor does manage to keep characterization throughout the action instead of just having the scenes being inserted between the story and character points.
While the supporting cast does solid work, as is to be expected of a cast of this caliber, it’s Affleck’s film through and through. He displays (once again) that despite his sub-par paycheck performances (including the aptly-named Paycheck) and his role in Gigli, Affleck really is a superior actor. He gets his ticks and stims down pat and makes them part of his character, not just displaying them when necessary. He fully inhabits the role of Christian Wolff, never breaking stride and always on point with his depiction of a man on the autism spectrum. It’s one of his best performances and it deserves to be seen.
Some of the negative backlash the film may suffer could be caused by a lack of understanding of what autism is and how people on the spectrum behave. Permanently imbedded in the culture (thanks to Dustin Hoffman’s great performance) is the idea that people with autism (not autistic, autism is something they have, not who they are) can’t function in society. The key to liking this film beyond it being a solid action flick is unlearning what you have learned about autism spectrum disorder. Once it is embraced that people on the spectrum don’t spend their days rocking back and forth counting toothpicks, The Accountant can be seen as a good action movie with a nuanced and knowing lead performance from Affleck and a more realistic depiction of what people with autism can accomplish, again not necessarily the brutal murder of people but as functional members of society that are just a little different.