Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Writer: Bill Dubuque
Autism is both a tricky and sensitive subject to portray in cinema and it can lead to much umbrage when done badly. Even Rain Man, a movie that was praised for opening the door to serious and thoughtful depictions of ASD, is problematic in its misleading suggestion that those who fall on the autistic spectrum are likely to be savants. Efforts have been made over the last few decades to represent autism as the complex, multifaceted condition that it is (X+Y is one recent movie that was audacious and touching in its portrayal) but there are still movies today that fall victim to the stereotypes associated with ASD. As someone who neither is nor knows anybody on the spectrum my take on The Accountant cannot help but be limited. I do however know when a film provides a problematic depiction of its subject and when it defeats its own message and can verify that this film struggles on both counts.
As a child Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) was diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism, a condition that has allowed him to become a highly capable accountant whose practice is actually a front for several criminal enterprises.. He is hired by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), the CEO of a cutting edge robotics company, to inspect their finances when a discrepancy is discovered by their accounting clerk Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick). Meanwhile Raymond King (J.K. Simmons), the head of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Agency, is investigating Wolff’s accounts and blackmails data analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into helping him. When Wolff’s investigation uncovers evidence of foul play, he and Dana suddenly become the targets of a hitman (Jon Bernthal), forcing them to go on the run. As the body count continues to rise Wolff must use the military skills he learned from his father to keep Dana safe and learn the truth behind this conspiracy.
The movie’s problem is that it wants to advocate the cause for autism, that being the idea that different abilities can come in different forms and that we need to reconsider what we deem to be “normal”, but doesn’t know how. I’m sure the gestures and expressions Affleck provides are accurate given the research he conducted but the story he’s in doesn’t know how to treat his character. Autism is used in this film as a plot device, making Wolff a savant so that he can be the great accountant the movie wants him to be, and it’s used as comic relief, as in the awkward interactions with love interest Dana Cummings. That the movie wants to try and normalise autism is all well and good, except that it goes so far out of its way to remind us of how abnormal Wolff is and laughs at his expense. What’s even more problematic is the movie’s message about victimhood being a choice. Wolff’s condition, so his father believes, makes him a victim but only if he lets it. Instead Wolff exposes himself to deafening heavy metal music and bright flashing lights while rolling a dowel along his calves every day or so, a painful experience for him, to keep his nervous system in check. As far as this movie is concerned autism is not a condition to be managed but one to be beaten into submission.
It seemed to me that the movie thought of Wolff’s autism as more of a concept than a subject. That is, the film wanted an action hero with a mental disability because it wanted an action hero with a mental disability. By giving ASD to a character of Jason Bourne-like skills (or Batman if you prefer), it almost seems like the movie is giving itself a licence to depict Wolff as an inhuman killing machine. Using what can only be described as a “superpower” Wolff can quickly aim a gun with mathematical precision, fight as if impervious to pain, and shoot a man in the face with cold indifference. Although we do get some pretty intense action scenes out of it, they come at the expense of a meaningful, substantive exploration of a real condition that millions of people all over the world live with.
Without the autism, The Accountant would just be a standard action movie with a convoluted plot and underwritten characters. The film underuses the talent at its disposal, most notably John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor. The FBI subplot has, in the grand scheme of things, nothing to do with the main story. There is a plot twist in the third act that is beautifully underscored in its absurdity by Lithgow’s dumbfounded expression. Affleck does give a technically good performance, but does so for a character that the movie doesn’t respect. The action scenes are very good indeed and they might have been enough to make this movie had they not enabled the disrespectful (or maybe misguided is the word) treatment of this character and his condition. There is a positive to be taken away which is that this film is, I think, sincere in its attempt to become a part of the conversation taking place. It fails, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it means that Hollywood is trying. This failure could end up being the motivation that inspires other filmmakers (perhaps even those who actually are on the spectrum) to do better.