In one of his most interesting roles in recent years, Ben Affleck takes on the persona of Christian Wolff, a math genius who also happens to be on the highly functioning side of the autistic spectrum. Christian is so functional, in fact, that he’s also a highly trained assassin with most of his emotional components turned off, so no amount of begging or pleading for one’s life is going to move him the slightest. Which doesn’t mean he isn’t lovable!
The Accountant works because it treats its subject and characters seriously without taking itself too seriously. Director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior, Miracle, Pride and Glory), working from a former blacklist script by Bill Dubuque, knows that what he’s working with is something of a superhero movie blended with a fun crime drama. We even get an origin story, told largely through flashbacks, of Christian and his brother being raised as Army brats by their single father, who believes the only way for Christian to survive in the world as an adult is to beat the tough into him through intense bouts of physical training that includes weaponry and fighting. Christian still grows up with quirks that more resemble OCD and his love of puzzles and patterns is almost psychotic. It’s established early that if he’s unable to finish a task, he loses his mind and goes through a brutal form of self-flagellation until the panic subsides.
Although he takes on the guise of a small-town CPA working in a secluded strip mall, Christian makes serious money bookkeeping for some of the most dangerous criminal organizations on the planet. A great deal of what we learn about Christian’s work comes from the Treasury Department. Their Crime Enforcement Division is run by Ray King (J.K. Simmons) and his newly recruited agent Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson, best known as “Arrow’s” Amanda Waller, and a real standout in this film), who are closing in on Christian right as he takes on a seemingly legit client—a massive robotics company founded by Lamar Black (John Lithgow).
When low-level accounting clerk Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) discovers a multi-million-dollar shortfall in the company’s books, Christian is brought in to pinpoint who in the company might be embezzling. Naturally, the closer the two get to finding the truth, the more danger they put themselves in, a prospect that unleashes Christian’s killer instincts.
The Accountant has several tones working quite nicely together. The childhood material is sometimes hard to stomach, which is the point. However, Christian grown up is often inadvertently humorous and endearing. This is only because he has trouble understanding certain basic human moods or personalities, or expressing himself properly. He is keenly aware that he wants to be a more social being, but his condition makes that nearly impossible, and instead he approximates appropriate responses, if only to hide his disability and make others feel more comfortable around him. When we catch him doing it, we can spot the disappointment in his eyes.
Although Affleck had nothing to do with the writing here, we can’t help but reflect on his Oscar-winning work on the Good Will Hunting screenplay when Christian is deep into the client’s books, and he’s scrawling balance sheets and figures across windows and walls in a conference room. The character is probably closer in proximity to Russell Crowe’s portrayal of a schizophrenic mathematician in A Beautiful Mind, but you get the idea. Although he has trouble connecting with anyone else, Christian sees a kindred spirit in numbers in Dana, and when her life is in danger, he becomes her protector with authority. It’s not quite a romance, but it is a caring gesture nonetheless.
The Accountant is front loaded with great supporting players, including Jon Bernthal as the contract killer hired to lead a team in to eliminate Christian and Dana; Jeffrey Tambor, in Christian’s flashbacks in prison as a fellow inmate and mob accountant who teaches him how to cook criminals’ books; and Jean Smart. But it’s the detailed examination of Christian’s overly prepared life and daily routines that is the most fascinating and wonderfully observed. He has a storage locker jammed with weapons and other tools of his assassin’s trade, all jammed into a top-of-the-line Airstream RV, ready to leave town in a moment’s notice.
With the Treasury Department coming at him from one side and Bernthal’s Brax approaching from the other with a small army to back him up, The Accountant ends in a blaze of deadly glory, as well as one of the biggest laughs in the movie. The entire production has a great pulpy vibe to it, and Affleck’s near expressionless face and delivery only makes us feel more compassion for this somewhat broken (by his father, not his condition) man. Director O’Connor is smart enough to know not to push the romance too hard, because it would have been an unnecessary and unwanted distraction from what is already an exceedingly compelling story.
Some people might be turned off by the filmmakers choosing not to pick a serious or semi-comedic atmosphere. I disagree. Changing things up when you least expect it makes life more interesting, and it certainly makes The Accountant a mostly unpredictable and highly entertaining endeavor.