The strangely entertaining ‘The Accountant’ tests preconceived notions about autism and action-adventure movies

November 17, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 17, 2016

The Accountant is a cleverly constructed and strangely likable action-adventure movie built on an unusual premise: That an autistic child can be groomed to become a businessman with the acumen of Bruce Wayne, an assassin with the skill of James Bond, a criminal with the morality of Robin Hood and a ladies’ man with the swagger of… well, of a celibate monk.

Ben Affleck plays the eponymous accountant, who goes by the name Christian Wolff. He runs an unremarkable tax firm in an unremarkable strip mall in Illinois, but that’s really a cover — “Wolff” mainly earns his keep by serving as a forensic accountant for shadowy criminals, businessmen and governments the world over. The Accountant’s main action begins when he’s called in by Lamar Black (John Lithgow), the founder and head of an advanced prosthetics manufacturer called Living Robotics, in an attempt to sniff out some financial anomalies that have been discovered by one of the company’s junior bookkeepers, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick).

As Wolff painstakingly uncovers a strange and complicated scheme that party or parties unknown have been perpetrating at the company, he finds that he himself has become a target. One group of hunters is led by Braxton (Jon Bernthal), a cheerful but violent man, who sets about methodically snuffing out anyone who knows about Living Robotics’ financial irregularities. The other group is led by Ray King (J.K. Simmons, perhaps best known for his seemingly ubiquitous insurance commercials), a legendary Treasury Department agent nearing retirement who essentially blackmails a junior federal analyst named Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into helping him bust his white whale — a mysterious accountant who looks suspiciously like Ben Affleck.

Meanwhile, Wolff and Cummings find themselves drawn to each other, despite Wolff’s standoffishness, and despite the concerned counsel of his mysterious partner. Wolff’s faceless accomplice, who only contacts him on his cell phone, is concerned that his newfound attachment will make the accountant vulnerable, and given the rough ways that Braxton and his men use, she’s not wrong…

All of this is fairly standard stuff as thrillers go. What sets The Accountant apart are the mysteries woven into the story: Who is Wolff’s partner? How and when did Wolff wind up in prison under the tutelage of kindly mob accountant Francis Silverberg (Jeffrey Tambor)? What led Wolff, and possibly another character in the movie, to the site of a mafia murder spree in the Bronx? Who is manipulating Living Robotics’ finances, and why does part of the scheme appear to involve dumping money back into the company? Who hired Braxton, and what prompts his steely professionalism to begin to waver as the movie approaches its climax? How did the outwardly wholesome but slightly seamy King become such an effective government agent? What’s more, how did he manage to obtain the sealed juvenile court documents that give him such enormous leverage over Medina?

But the most important question of all is how did Wolff escape his troubled childhood as a misunderstood autistic child growing up in a turbulent environment with an itinerant military intelligence officer (Robert C. Treveiler), his unhappy wife and a protective but frustrated younger brother?

The solutions to these puzzles are slowly doled out by director Gavin O’Connor (director of 2016’s western Jane Got a Gun and a co-creator of the TV series The Americans) and writer Bill Dubuque (The Judge). Although the duo are careful to explain everything, viewers who don’t pay close attention will miss a few key plot points. The fact that the filmmakers don’t spell everything out in 40-foot-tall letters makes for a pleasing change from Hollywood’s standard modus operandi. In addition, Dubuque stages most of his action sequences cleanly, avoiding the dim lighting and shaky cam that all too often make these scenes a headache to decipher.

The Accountant’s oddball premise — an idiot savant of both accounting and assassination? — could easily have backfired, and indeed, there are moments when the movie threatens to cross over into unbearably corny territory. But O’Connor, Affleck and company handle everything with enough conviction that I was able to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the proceedings. Simmons and Addai-Robinson make for an interesting duo, Kendrick is charmingly nerdy and awkward, and Lithgow, Tambor, Treveiler and the rest more than hold their own. In the end, The Accountant is entertaining not in spite of but in large part because of its strangeness.

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