REVIEW | 'The Accountant' watchable but underwhelming

Don’t mess with accountants. Don’t mess with people with autism. Better yet, don’t mess with autistic accountants because they might actually be able to beat you up or shoot you with a sniper rifle. That was my main takeaway watching “The Accountant,”— Gavin O’Connor’s silly, mildly entertaining and ultimately flawed picture.

In all seriousness though the idea of making the protagonist of a pulpy action/crime thriller an autistic person is refreshing and despite all the action and killing the film has a surprisingly positive outlook. Don’t let a developmental disability hold you back; you can do whatever you want. You might be weird, but that’s OK because you’re capable of great things. Even if said things involve cooking the books for criminals and killing people that get in your way.

The titular accountant is Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) a mathematical genius and elite assassin. He can analyze fifteen years of company financial records in a single night and he can kill you—using his super sweet Martial arts, a fifty-caliber sniper rifle, a metal water bottle…really anything. However, he’s also socially awkward. He barely makes eye contact, doesn’t pick up on basic social cues, doesn’t totally get sarcasm and can be emotionally distant. At times he’s almost robotic, which I suppose is what makes it so easy for him to commit cold-blooded acts of violence without flinching and do forensic accounting for criminal organizations from around the world.

Affleck is stupendous in the role. His accountant is meticulous and calculating, cool as hell and totally badass. The scenes in which he takes care of business (particularly one in the hallway of an apartment) are visceral and exciting. At the same time, he gives Christian a much-needed vulnerability that shines through that cold robotic exterior at crucial moments and a sense of humor. Affleck delivers a handful of memorable amusing deadpan lines of dialogue. My favorite involves the Cassius Marcellus Coolidge paintings, “Dogs Playing Poker.”

It’s a great character and the movie itself is passably entertaining, mostly because O’Connor and co. don’t take the material too seriously. This is a movie that has both a cheesy “accounting” montage (wherein Christian scans through hundreds of documents and writes mathematical formulas and spreadsheet data on whiteboards and on windows) and a later sequence in which he infiltrates a heavily guarded mansion with calm, workmanlike precision. It’s ridiculous but at least the filmmakers and cast know that. There’s a prevalent undercurrent of humor and self-awareness.  

My problems with the film have everything to do with the plot. The central narrative in Bill Dubuqe’s screenplay is weak in comparison to the material accompanying it involving Christian’s upbringing and rise to criminal accountant. In the present time, Christian is living a quiet, low-key life in a tiny Midwest town when he’s recruited by Lamar Black (John Lithgow) the head of a shady robotics company to retrieve some missing money. However things go bad when people start to drop dead at the hands of mercenary Braxton (Jon Bernthal, chewing up scenery), forcing Christian to go on the run. Company employee Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick, cute, likable as always. Though she is given very little to do here) also gets caught up in the danger all the while, Raymond King (J.K. Simmons) and Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) from the U.S Treasury Department are trying to find Christian.

None of this is as interesting as it should be. The mystery surrounding the missing money is thin and undercooked; you can see the outcome from a mile a way. In fact, all the major dramatic twists and turns in the story are obvious. Furthermore, a final reveal involving Braxton’s character is not only apparent well before the scene happens but the moment falls flat because the character (and his motivations) is kept so intentionally vague and one-dimensional. His identity is saved for a mere third act twist and the script fails to give him any meaningful substance. The interaction between him and Christian should hold more weight than it does. Overall, the narrative doesn’t amount to much and what little there is fizzles out at the climax.

What’s more intriguing is Christian’s past. His turbulent childhood involving his semi abusive relationship with his father (and having to cope with his disability), how he first came to be an accountant for criminals and his early dealings with the mob is all absorbing, narratively rich material that would have made a great “rise-to-power” character study. However in the current film it’s all smashed into exposition heavy flashbacks and clunky expository dialogue. The only purpose King and Medina serve is to dig up this background information for the sake of the audience, or in some cases bluntly reiterate information we already know.

King’s secret, personal connection with Christian is the film’s only legitimately surprising moment and it would have given the character some crucial emotional depth. Unfortunately, in the film it’s dropped in the middle of a tedious and overlong flashback that seeks to answer a lot of questions concerning Christian’s background. In other words, the connection is treated as yet another trite narrative twist and tainted in the process. As for Medina, there’s not really a character there, just a cipher to provide information.

I was never bored during “The Accountant.” The cast and self-awareness always keeps the film watchable despite the lackluster narrative. But considering the character and his rich potential the final product is underwhelming.