The Accountant is Ben Affleck’s third Batman movie this year … in a manner of speaking. It’s also the best one, but don’t get too amped about a movie’s ability to clear a bar that was already on the ground.
If Affleck’s upcoming Live by Night (a 1930s gangster film he also directed) is Affleck’s prestige play for 2016, The Accountant is the popcorn. Nothing wrong with that, but this is the stale stuff bagged and resold over the course of a slow week at the theater — a soft, over-salted, lukewarm mix of A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting, The Bourne Identity and John Wick, with none of the flavor profiles.
Don’t be fooled by Affleck stressing this as his respite from superhero cinema. (Side note: For a guy as commercially and critically successful as Affleck, he’s certainly got an apology complex.) He’s maximizing the mileage on his Bat bod, and his face is an inker’s ideal — cleft, chisels and furrows foretelling clouded, crowded thoughts. The only difference in The Accountant? He never covers it with a cowl.
Eventually, The Accountant goes full-bore origin story on Christian Wolff, a high-functioning autistic man with sensory processing disorder who proves to be as supernaturally effective with fists and firearms as he is at un-cooking the books for dealers and despots. Not for nothing does Christian stuff a vintage collectible comic book in his go-bag should he need to move it for cash.
Another character even takes a hard left into Commissioner Gordon territory. “I’ll handle this accountant,” scowls a scalawag. “He’s just an accountant!,” screams a hapless sap. Sirs, have you not read The Red Ledger Chronicles? (No such graphic novel exists, but if this movie’s a hit …)
I’m hardly averse to would-be superhero movies wearing the threads of upmarket fall dramas. Unbreakable remains M. Night Shyamalan’s best film, in part because it embraces its idiosyncratic, icy reserve. The Accountant does, too, in the first act before immolating it with a four-blowtorch attack of dopey sentiment, clunky exposition, unsurprising surprises and illogical twists. After 128 minutes, that intriguing setup feels four movies ago.
In fact, The Accountant is nearly as sprawling and overstuffed as the last job-as-metaphorical-movie-title film from writer Bill Dubuque, 2014’s The Judge. At least there’s no moment where you worry Affleck might have slept with his own daughter; in fact, underplaying romantic sparks with a character played by Anna Kendrick is among its few surefooted steps. But Dubuque’s M.O. again seems to be stacking towers of stuff, like a compulsive hoarder of narrative tropes, to distract you from the hollow center.
At least The Accountant’s depiction of autism is a far cry from the cloddish / camera-carrying savant brother in The Judge. This isn’t Captain Autismo. What Affleck (and Dubuque) get right about Christian exceed the sort of tics insensitive to real-life inspiration; four autism consultants are credited. Through careful characterization and thoughtful performance, The Accountant avoids unsavory areas of exploitation that might equate “autistic” with “dark,” “edgy” and “weird.”
Christian’s cover embodies milquetoast modesty that borders on the monastic — a mid-level strip-mall accountant content to help self-employed farmers bump up business deductions. By, he rigidly controls his overwhelming impulses to “stim” (self-stimulate). Every night, he allows himself a 20-minute nightly outlet of overload — blaring EDM, blinding strobes, running his bare legs raw with a wooden roller. Summoning his demons, rather than subjugating them, has become a sort of daily purification and penance for a past about which, through exceedingly clumsy exposition, we come to learn everything.
Playing meek and muscular as he needs to, Affleck helps us understand, in understated fashion, why accounting is a perfect mien for Christian — not just in his facility with numbers but in the way he must view the world through a certain code of inflexible rules. Going down computational rabbit holes also fits his preoccupation with pointing fingers and finishing tasks, as is his racing mind’s wont.
Affleck is dialed in but the movie misses every other connection, laboring to unify a surplus of subplots. Ray King (J.K. Simmons) is a financial crimes task-force honcho for the U.S. Treasury whom Christian has eluded everywhere from Tokyo to Tehran. It’s a loose end he enlists a troubled young agent (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to help him tie up before retiring. Brax (Jon Bernthal) is a brash, bon-vivant villainous yin to Wolff’s yang — a cackling killer who waxes poetic on the dirty deeds he doesn’t do dirt cheap.
Then there’s Christian’s latest accounting assignment — a seemingly low-risk, high-reward pre-IPO audit of a robotics company that, once you learn who plays its CEO, is clearly bad luck and trouble. (Call it Chekhov’s Character Actor.) Kendrick is Dana, a whip-smart upstart in the company’s business office whose initial discovery of missing funds places her in danger and Christian on the unexpected offensive.
If that weren’t enough, we flashback to formative years with Christian’s parents as well as his apprenticeship with a white-collar criminal (Jeffrey Tambor). And what’s up with that voice on the phone helping him out of jams?
You can tell Dubuque hopes to also explore the dynamics of “neurotypicals” in Christian’s orbit, but their demons, such as they are, come from po-faced playbooks. He musters up entirely too much meaningless, melodramatic mumbo-jumbo for a story better served by its focus on chaotic entropy upending Christian’s neatly manicured emotional order. By the time it hits a dim, ugly action finale, he doubles down on Christian’s Stathamic aptitude for mowing men down with anti-aircraft weaponry.
A true waste, that scene, for when will second-unit directors or stunt coordinators ever again get a chance to explore, via cinematic or performative language, the idea of action-driven sensory overload as immersive therapy through which someone with sensory sensitivity issues copes?
Director Gavin O’Connor knows his way around elevating the mundane (cop thrillers like Pride & Glory or uplifting sports films like Warrior or Miracle) through eliciting strong performances and subtly emphasizing important detail. There’s a bit of the latter and a lot of the former. Bernthal is a believably hair-trigger bad guy. Simmons finds moments of frailty in another ass-riding grumpus role through which he could easily sleepwalk. Kendrick is a larger talent than the movie allows her to show.
But the words uttered by Christian’s father resonate as strongly throughout the sloppy storytelling as they do in his son’s mind: “Sooner or later, different scares people.” Given the laughably predictable hodgepodge that The Accountant becomes, the studio bean counters seem to have felt the same way.