Thoughts on ‘The Accountant’ (2016)

Just a quick post to share a few observations of this film! Spoilers, obviously.

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The Accountant is a strange beast. Part issue driven family drama, part character study, part big, dumb action film, it feels a bit schizophrenic at times. However, I don’t review what I don’t like, and I did find myself liking a lot about this film.

The film’s central character, Christian Wolff, is an autistic savant whose gifts lie in the field of number crunching. A traumatic, nomadic childhood (dad, who is in the army, believes in a kind of implosion therapy for Chris’ condition, whereby he should be subjected to as many loud noises, bright lights and fistfights as possible, whereas mum wants him to be taken under the wing of a sympathetic doctor with expertise in the condition. Dad wins.) means that young Chris has grown into an adult with a somewhat unique moral code. That moral code drives him to become the go-to guy for mobsters and crooks who want their books ‘uncooked’ when things go wrong and their cash goes astray. Anyone who transgresses his moral code is likely to get a bullet to the head.

Ben Affleck does a really interesting job here. His performance is extremely convincing, and, while it could be argued that everyone who has the condition of autism is different, Affleck’s portrayal does present some of the more common traits. The reluctance to make eye contact with others; the difficulties associated with placing oneself in a space, the social confusion and awkwardness, all are shown here. Yes, it’s a broad brush presentation at times (the conversation with the old man Frances about how to recognises inflection and tone in people’s voices is part expositional, part for comic effect, but strangely touching), but actually, I bought into Christian’s character. I forgot I was watching an actor for most of the film, and just enjoyed the performance.

For me, as always, the film was about the relationships. Two big ones spring to mind. The first is the presentation of the relationship between Chris and Dana Cummings, the accountant for the robotics firm who spots the discrepancy that causes Chris to be brought in to solve the issue. Although woefully underwritten, the moments that we do get are a delight to watch. From their first awkward meeting, to the lunch scene, to Chris’ total animation and delight when he shares the solution to the accounting problem with her (cut short, beautifully, when her boss walks in), the film explores Chris’ issues with connecting with people really nicely here. In context, talking numbers, he’s at home; out of context, discussing anything else, he’s uncomfortable.

This is reinforced in a later scene when Chris and Dana are on the run; Dana, who, most likely is also on the autistic spectrum, only not so far along it as Chris, tells Chris a story about a dress; only it’s not about the dress. This is another slightly clunky ‘everyone just wants to connect’ moment in narrative terms, but the performances of Affleck and Anna Kendrick as Dana carry it through, and there’s a subtle moment of true connection between them. The inevitable kiss-and-everything-will-suddenly-be-alright moment is interrupted, though, when Chris has another numerical breakthrough. The two leads do have great chemistry, and there is a touching moment at the end of the film that shows Chris really has fallen for Dana, even though he is unable to express that in person. I think that’s where the misunderstanding comes with this film; autism isn’t lack of desire to connect with people, it’s lack of ability/the tools to do so, and at times this film gets it right, but at other times it forgets that. Affleck’s performance redeems a lot.

tac-10_jbernthalThe other relationship that intrigues me, and is, again, carried by excellent performances is that of the two brothers in the film. Chris’ younger brother is presented to us in a very limited way, through flashback, and is, for the most part shown to be ignored by his parents, angered by his mother’s desertion of the family and then…well, nothing. Until the end of the film, that is. Then, we find out that the representative from a somewhat shady security firm who has been putting the frighteners on investment bankers on behalf of the poor, the disadvantaged and the royally screwed over, is in fact Chris’ brother Braxton. In a sense, the two brothers have followed the same path, developed the same unique moral code, although this is underplayed in the film.

But what made me sit up and take notice was the performance of Jon Bernthal as Braxton. Last seen (at least by me) shagging Rick’s wife Laurie in The Walking Dead before being bumped off, this role gives him something interesting to do – at least for the last ten minutes or so of the film. Don’t get me wrong, he has a really chilling moment when he presents the co-director of Living Robotics with a grisly ultimatum, but it’s the end of the film where he gives another woefully underwritten role real range. In the conversation between Braxton and Chris, Bernthal presents us with grown man and confused, traumatised boy simultaneously; it’s a brilliant performance. You see the brutality of the killer juxtaposed with the confusion and hurt of  the boy who lost his mother and then his brother too young. Bernthal’s facial expressions, body language and delivery of dialogue are in such stark contrast to Affleck’s in this scene; the two of them play wonderfully off each other; Affleck’s Chris struggles to connect, although you can see in his eyes he’s desperate to do so, and Bernthal’s Braxton is struggling to contain his emotions in the face of a brother who can’t read them. They spill from him in such a way that it’s both painful and beautiful to watch. I wanted more of this, and less of the fighty fighty bits!

I should mention that there are other strands to this film – the subplot involving an FBI treasury analyst tracking down Chris’ true identity is a worthy addition, if a little convoluted, and there are some brilliant interactions between Chris and his favourite farmer clients, too. All of these come together in the usual Hollywood way, and resolve fairly well.

Overall, The Accountant was a decent watch, and I absolutely bought into the characters. It’s a shame that there were a few too many moments that were underplayed or glossed over (and, considering it’s just over two hours long, that’s saying something), but it was definitely one to remember. I do wonder, though, if my love of romance, and my equal affection for a warring brothers trope, has influenced me! Thoughts, anyone?

 

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