Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant is an entertaining thriller that sports a peculiar mix of black ops action and wry humor. It focuses around a high-functioning autistic man named Christian Wolff who handles advanced ballistics just as well as he does advanced calculus. The story is told through multiple flashbacks, and follows multiple characters in the present day as they interact. Not everything gels together perfectly, and the underlying themes are fairly under-developed in favor of a simplistic action sequences, but The Accountant does far more right than it does wrong.
Director Gavin O’Connor make liberal use of flashbacks throughout the film to provide some essential context. Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is an autistic person, and the flashbacks provide a a great deal of characterization through his struggles as a child. His mother leaves the family on account of the stress of his condition, so he is left to be raised by his military officer father who believes that he must correct for his son’s autism with combat training. As an adult, Christian runs an accounting firm in some Podunk strip mall, encouraging his clients to get creative with their taxes to save money.
On the side, he cooks the books for some of the most dangerous people in the world: drug cartels, arms dealers, and terrorists.
The investigation into exactly who Christian is produces the second narrative strand. Ray King (J.K. Simmons) is on the cusp of retirement (aren’t they always?), and before he retires he wants to learn who this man is in all of the surveillance photos of big black money dealings. This man who is only known as “The Accountant”. He enlists the help of an analyst named Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson). While Christian tackles a contract with a legitimate business owned by Lamar Black (John Lithgow) with assistance from a low-level accountant named Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), King and Medina get closer and closer to discovering him.
When that “legitimate” contract turns out to be something quite different, hit men descend upon everyone who knows about Christian’s findings. Unfortunately for them, Christian is well-trained in the use of weapons and hand-to-hand combat. As the layers of the story are peeled back, we get a better understanding of every character, complete with some intriguing revelations and a few surprising twists.
Without a doubt, Affleck’s portrayal of Christian is the most complete and rewarding in the film. Some sequences lag behind a bit, but for the most parts he is charming, funny, and detached in a realistic way. His dissatisfaction with himself and his inability to connect with others shines through in key scenes, but it is always warming to see him lean in and try. When on the warpath, he is devastating. Both his combat skills and his coldness are on display, as indicated by specific details like always firing two shots into the heads of his enemies, and the almost nonchalant way that he approaches a confrontation.
J.K. Simmons does just fine in his role, but it is not too substantial. The same is true for his “partner”, who both feel a little underwritten. Sadly, this is also the case for Anna Kendricks’ Dana Cummings. She doesn’t have too much to do in the story besides provide Christian with a kind of humanizing touchstone. And, while she holds her own during one assault for far longer than one might expect, she really doesn’t have much sovereignty or volition in the story itself. Indeed, the supporting characters and the bifurcated story that is organized around all of them is the weakest part of the film.
That being said, there is a surprising amount of humor generated by these characters, most notably in the interactions between Christian and Dana. As a result, The Accountant is one of the funnier thrillers I have seen in a while. Most of the comedy comes from incongruity, as Christian simply doesn’t understand exactly how to act in some pretty severe circumstances, or Dana reels from various revelations. A complex tone like this, mixing dry comedy with high-tension action combat sequences, can go wrong in many different ways, but here is it dialed up perfectly.
Thematically, the big ideas of The Accountant are left severely under-developed. The attention the story gives to the difficulties experienced by autistic people barely reaches the level of lip service. The concept of learning to care for someone else is front-and-center, but is given precious little depth. Mostly, it is patently clear that this film is mostly interested in laying out a twist-riddled plot around a singular spectacular character and a number of serviceable ones. Themes are left by the wayside, and relegated to the surface level, even after the twists are revealed.
The Accountant isn’t a spectacular revelation, but it is a solid thriller with a little more on its mind than most of its peers. The particular tonal mixture lends the film a distinct flavor, and Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Christian are well-worth the price of admission. Those looking for a more high-minded techno-thriller or globetrotting Bourne clone should probably look elsewhere, but I believe that the vast majority will find something to appreciate here. It is an easy choice over the derivative franchise fare we’ve been inundated with over the last few years.