In the future, every A-list actor will get a Taken-like franchise. They’ll star as a highly-skilled, trained killer who’s a good guy, and then that good guy mercilessly guns down bad guys. It’s happened for Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, and now it’s happened for Ben Affleck with The Accountant. While The Accountant doesn’t inhabit the action genre quite as firmly as Taken or similar franchises, it still gives its protagonist ample room to gun down a slew of nameless foes. And yet while The Accountant feels like an adaptation of an airplane novel, it’s also overstuffed with plotlines that don’t serve to illuminate the titular accountant in any meaningful way.
Christian Wolff (Affleck) is a small-town CPA with a form of high-functioning autism. By day, he helps the little guy find loopholes to help them with their taxes, and by night, he does business with drug cartels, gangsters, and other shady organizations. His identity is a mystery to the Treasury Department, and Director Raymond King (J.K. Simmons) brings in analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to try and find Wolff. Meanwhile, Wolff’s latest case is to investigate some missing money from a robotics firm run by Lamar Black (John Lithgow), an irregularity first uncovered by the company’s perky accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick). What Wolff uncovers puts his and Dana’s life in danger, and he’s forced to go on the run and solve the mystery before they’re killed by a group of mercenaries led by Braxton (Jon Bernthal).
When the story is just focused on Christian is when The Accountant is at its best. In fact, the scene where Christian does actual accounting is my favorite scene in the movie. I was ready to unload a bunch of “Not enough accounting,” jokes, and instead there’s a long scene where Christian is running numbers on the wall and then he geeks out about the irregularities with Dana. It’s fun to share in the characters’ joy over something so nerdy, and while I don’t know if I would go for a whole movie where characters get super excited about accounting, these are fun scenes that show that for Christian, he genuinely enjoys solving problems rather than just using accounting as a cover for money laundering and assassinations.
The film is also helped by a captivating performance from Affleck. I’ll say off the bat that I don’t know if the film is a good representation of autism or not. In 1988, Dustin Hoffman was acclaimed for his portrayal of an autistic man in Rain Man, and now we look back and kind of cringe at that performance. Part of the problem is that we still don’t widely understand autism, and that autism takes many different forms. There’s a spectrum and one person’s autism may manifest differently than another’s. So because autism isn’t widely understood, The Accountant operates in a difficult space where it appears they’re trying to portray the disorder accurately, and then other times you’re left to wonder, “Do people with autism really lock themselves in rooms to blare heavy metal, turn on a strobe light, and smash their shins with wooden rods,” like Christian does?
If we set aside the accuracy of the performance (which, at the very least, doesn’t seem to be disparaging autistic people since someone with autism gets to be a kick-ass action hero on the level of Jack Reacher and John Wick), it’s certainly an interesting turn for Affleck and far removed from anything he’s tried before. It’s mostly withdrawn, shy, and trying to make his massive frame (he looks like he still has all of his Batman v Superman muscle on) smaller than it is. There seems to be genuine sympathy for Christian, and that’s an interesting approach for an actor to take towards an action hero. Usually, these kinds of characters have a commanding presence, whereas Christian is more matter-of-fact. He doesn’t kill to show power or dominance; he kills because that’s what his job requires. It’s difficult to portray a character as detached yet not robotic, and Affleck pulls it off.
The problem comes when Bill Dubuque’s script loses track of its main character and tries to build up a mythology around him. Christian Wolff seems like a character built for a long stream of disposable airport novels featuring hard-boiled heroes like Jack Reacher and Matthew Scudder, but The Accountant, which isn’t based on any pre-existing material, seems like it’s trying to get everything out about the character in one movie.
And while I applaud a film for not trying to build a franchise that may never come, The Accountant heaps on plotlines that don’t really serve the overall narrative. If you were to cut out everything dealing with the Treasury Department’s investigation, you’d have a movie that would be about 40 minutes shorter and 40% better. Then there are the plentiful flashbacks to Christian’s childhood and his stern upbringing by his father who was in the military. These flashbacks don’t feel like they’re illuminating as much as they’re making excuses for people who might scoff at the general premise of “How can someone be autistic and a globe-trotting assassin?”
These additions don’t necessarily make The Accountant a bad film, but they certainly make it more bloated. They take what could have been a lean, intense thriller and load it up with plot and backstory that don’t benefit the overall film in any substantive way. While I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing another film featuring Christian Wolff, hopefully the next time around they’ll find a better balance.