There’s so much going on in the unlikely action drama The Accountant that I think we can be forgiven for wondering whether writer Bill Dubuque (The Judge) and director Gavin O’Connor (Jane Got a Gun, Pride and Glory) are attempting to give us a little taste of what the world must be like for its hero, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck). Wolff calls himself a high-functioning autistic, but he’s not that high-functioning: the tentative control he seems to have over the sensory overload he suffers from is a result of daily desensitization sessions, during which he subjects himself to blaring heavy-metal music and strobing lights (and sometimes hits himself). The Accountant isn’t the kind of action movie that Wolff’s ritual is nearly a metaphor for: it’s not nonstop crashes and chases and explosions; in fact, like Wolff himself, the action here is mostly carefully measured and very precise. But there’s so much convoluted and confusing stuff crammed into the plot that it’s overwhelming, and not in a pleasant way. Characters’ motivations get lost, and the way people behave doesn’t always seem to parse; I can almost taste, through the murk, that the ultimate explication of what has been going on actually negates everything that came before. It’s tough to unravel. And while it’s nice to have a different sort of action hero in Wolff, but I’m not sure it was the best idea to make these aspects of his autism the ones we’re asked to experience. Assuming that was deliberate at all, which I suspect it wasn’t.
Wolff is a fascinating character, though, and Affleck (Suicide Squad, Gone Girl) is very good at ensuring that Wolff’s repetitive mannerisms never descend into caricature, and in portraying the unspoken misery of not being able to make connections with other people, via eye contact, for instance… which I have absolutely no doubt is even more difficult than it sounds; acting is all about connecting with the other actors around you, and I imagine it must be difficult to turn that off. And I like that The Accountant is a grownup drama with an unusual central character telling a different sort of story than we’ve seen before; even at only half a success, that is very welcome indeed. Wolff is a more morally complex protagonist than we typically get in our action dramas, and painting a portrait of just how complex he is may be the most interesting job the story has to do. He’s a math savant, a forensic accountant for bad guys, really bad guys — think international arms dealers and global drug cartels — who need to know who has been cooking their books and stealing from them. So, while we may presume that his work gets people killed, they’re really bad people, right? So that’s sorta maybe okay, if only grading on the action-movie-hero curve?
And there’s this additional factor: the flashbacks that clue us in to Wolff’s childhood reveal a military-officer father (Robert C. Treveiler: Prisoners, The Conspirator) who bordered on being abusive in his tough-love method of training Wolff to cope with his autism, which is how a math nerd like Wolff comes to be so very handy with guns and martial arts. (Those desensitization sessions also clearly spring from deep in his past.) So perhaps we’re meant to see Wolff as damaged in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with his autism, and everything to do with the hard, cruel ways his father taught him to deal with the world. Maybe he’s not morally complicated: maybe he’s just fucked up. In any case, Wolff is certainly more than his autism.
But even all of that is only the beginning of how we’re asked to consider what he does, and why. It gets a lot twistier, not least because two Treasury Department investigators, Ray King (J.K. Simmons: Zootopia, Terminator Genisys) and his underling Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson: Colombiana), have just launched an investigation to try to figure out who the heck this mysterious genius Accountant to the world’s villains is, which ends up revealing even more about the sort of man Wolff is. In the end, unfortunately, their work is moot: King’s reasons for starting this investigation, for forcing Medina into it, and for insisting it is so urgent completely fall apart. It’s always great to hang out with J.K. Simmons (and Addai-Robinson is fab), but their bit of the story is one of the bits that does nothing but add unnecessary obfuscation.
While King and Medina are doing their detective work, Wolff’s latest job, which was supposed to be a break from bad guys, turns out to feature some bad guys after all. Wolff has been hired by a tech company whose owner (John Lithgow: Interstellar, The Campaign) is about to take it public, except a staff accountant, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick: Trolls, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates), has found some discrepancies in the books, and this needs to be cleared up lest it negatively impact the IPO. People connected to the company and to the books start turning up dead almost as soon as Wolff gets to work, and a hitman (Jon Bernthal: We Are Your Friends, Sicario) ends up coming after Wolff and Cummings for reasons that also end in outrageously contrived nonsense.
So, for all that The Accountant wants to be something new, it only partly gets there. It’s a shame that a movie that can conceive of an autistic action hero cannot conceive of a plot that does not require a damsel in distress (poor Anna Kendrick). It’s a shame that a movie that sneaks in a message about how neuroatypicals like Wolff have things to offer the world that we normals cannot imagine has them display talents that, while very clever, end up in the service of very familiar goals. But perhaps this can be a stepping stone to a more, well, atypical movie about an autistic person in the near future.