Review by James Murphy
2 hrs approx
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Stars: Ben Affleck, John Lithgow, Anna Kendrick, JK Simmons, John Bernthal
Christian (Affleck) is an accountant who has learned to manage his high functioning autism in an unforgiving world. He is also a military grade survivor with the skills of a top assassin / special forces veteran. The connection? He has been using one set of skills to cover the other; taking on the deadliest of accounting contracts with the most dangerous clients, only to run from consequence and disappear without trace for the good guys or bad. It’s an unfeeling aim and calculated method, suiting him very well. But the Government are about to close in and when one of his contracts goes wrong without notice, The Accountant must use all his skills and test his limited emotional responses to their limits…
The Profit /Asset:
This is Ben Affleck’s best performance as an actor in a lead role. Seriously. Every facial tick, awkward smile and nervous line delivery: perfectly poised professionalism with just a hint of film star elegance. It’s understated, effective and manages to genuinely advance the cause of playing an autistic person, without simply copying what Dustin Hoffman did so definitively in Rain Man 25 years ago. It’s a touching portrayal and frequently as funny as it is movingly sad; we never laugh at the character’s difficulties but do feel for his striving to blend in with a world that still does not understand autism sufficiently. Well done, Ben! AND he manages to give us some action heroics in the Bourne/Batman/Bond style. But therein lies the problem..
The Loss / Liabilities:
One can imagine the pitch. ‘It’s Rain Man meets Bourne!’ Bingo. Screenwriting 101. A Producer’s dream. Safe and commercial yet worthy and experimental. Except you cannot blend those aims, without severely hampering method. There’s just too much story to tell, and far too many characters to get through, via a jazz style mish-mash of genres that simply do not balance out.
You get moments of genius in each pot: the action choreography is excellent, with every cartridge drop and ricochet coming at you in a 2-d film with 3-d visceral impact. You’ll get an engagingly emotional and mature look at family dynamics and an evolving backdrop of attitudes to autism, which would be a nice dramatic picture in itself. Some hints of mob thriller /corporate conspiracy theory carnival and lots of Feds on one last make or break case. Taken together, they blur each other’s individual impact, numbing pace, tone and robbing the film of either shamelessly glamorous fantasy or wholly satisfying and substantial emotional arcs.
Yet again in as many weeks, after Jack Reacher and Robert Langdon visited cinemas in new sequels, we have a thriller that fails to thrill. Where are the real stakes here? Who is hunting whom and why? Where should our sympathies lie and which villain are we genuinely anxious to vanquish through the hero’s journey?
Answer: we never know. And that is not because the script and direction are innovating to subtly avoid value judgments. It’s simply clumsy story-telling in an excess of plot. Had the script perhaps been given one more pass or Affleck himself taken over as Director and fixed things (as he is having to do, apparently, with tone for the new DC movie universe) then this would, definitely be a good to great film. As is? Well it functions adequately on its competing levels but its failure to cohere ultimately generates a loss of tragic proportions. One to file under: opportunities /missed.
There are attempts at big twists and epic revelations. But they arrive too late to have any impact on an audience and in any event, get blurred by a fairly formulaic ending. We must also face the fact that the hero and his associates are, frankly, criminals, here. Not in some altruistic Robin Hood way.
They’re just nasty and selfish and whilst their backgrounds and problems might explain the behaviours exhibited, an excuse or redemption is never truly offered. Once again, that would all be fine, but for the film’s need to wrap things up nicely with some sort of indication that we have just watched yet another super-hero/ super-spy film and indeed that a franchise could be in waiting should box office permit.
I was reminded on occasion of a 1997 film, The Saint, which starred the great Val Kilmer (one of Affleck’s many predecessors in the elite club of Bat-men). That was also flawed in its moral message and tone and pace, but its score, locations, visuals and inventive edits injected real joy to the adventures of an emotionally unavailable, globe trotting thief.
Like our hero in The Accountant, Kilmer’s Simon Templar relied on aliases (‘all the names of Catholic Saints’) and worked, initially without consequence, for the highest underworld bidder. Same MO here, except the names are all mathematicians and he’s not a glamorous thief..but..er..an..accountant?!
Note also, Templar was chased by a task force of sorts. Except that Director Phillip Noyce wisely cast Alun Armstrong and Charlotte Cornwell as the Police on the case, thereby brightening even the dry expository dialogue. Here? Gavin O’Connor has woefully miscast an entire federal task force and injects zero drama, comedy or emotional literacy to the pursuit of the mysterious Accountant.
To be fair, O’Connor does command solid support from the likes of John Lithgow here (on a second wind in his career, it seems: see also, The Crown, on Netflix, where Lithgow gives us a genuinely new take on the Churchill mythos). But it’s not enough to salvage tone or pace in The Accountant.
I was also reminded of Good Will Hunting: the movie that launched Affleck’s career as both star and screenwriter. Like The Accountant, that script fused mathematical genius to social awkwardness. But the two differ in that the former knew to eschew any ‘he’s autistic therefore a genius’ or ‘The Feds want him’ motifs. The latter simply does not and is all the poorer in both clarity and coherence as a result.
Indeed, it was Affleck himself, as I understand it (correct me if wrong: apologies in advance if so?) who insisted the Good Will Hunting script lose a sub-plot that had Matt Damon’s Will being ‘hunted’ (geddit?) by the authorities seeking to harness his abilities for some military mission? Such a shame he did not pull rank and exercise similar judgement here, because we could have had either a first rate thriller OR a genuinely mature and moving character study. You cannot be both.
Final Audit Report:
If you do see The Accountant, then you will have much to enjoy: the actors (especially Affleck, but also Lithgow, Kendrick, and Bernthal); the depiction of autism and its implications and some first rate action sequences. It’s moving and funny and intriguing. Alas: the books just don’t balance here, with too many premises and plot lines fighting for dominance and thereby impairing the emotional and entertainment value, via muddled tone and pace. There are several great genre pieces in here but sadly their merger creates a merely adequate individual product. 2.5/5.