The Accountant is a hybrid of thriller subgenres. The first is the superhero origin story: screenwriter Bill Dubuque fills his high-concept premise with convluted plot and secondary characters, all in service of a flawed protagonist who tried to do the right thing. The second is a story of an unflappable assassin with a heart of gold. In fact, the title is not all that different from Jason Statham franchises where a shadowy criminal-for-hire must deal with the moral consequences of his profession. For a while, anyway, The Accountant is intruiging – complete with strong characters and a brisk sense of action. But it gets bogged down with exposition and needless twists, to the point where O’Connor and screenwriter Bill Dubuque squander momentum for a slog.
The high-concept premise is a dark character study and a procedural. We meet Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), an accountant with a high-functioning form of autism (the film uses autism as a kind of superpower. A speech explains how Wolff’s brain allows him to see the world in a clearer way than those who engage with it normally). His latest high-profile client is Lamar Black (John Lithgow), who runs a successful robotics firm.
Black hires Wolff to find a strange irregularity in the company records, and Black has in-house accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) help him along. JK Simmons plays Ray King, a Department of Treasury official who desperately wants to find the anonymous accountant since he somehow has cooked the books for the world’s most dangerous criminal cartels. After Wolff and Cummings accidentally link Black’s records with massive fraud, Black hires an assassin (Jon Bernthal) to take them out. What Black doesn’t count on, however, is that Wolff is also a ruthlessly trained killer, with unmatched shooting and martial arts skills.
I just read the preceding paragraph, and there is enough material there for at least three films. I didn’t even get to some major plot points! There are flashbacks to Christian’s early life: we see him as a disturbed young man, and as an adult who finds normalcy through routine and unusual coping mechanisms. The Accountant is at its best when it is moody and focused. Affleck is not the best actor for this material – his awkward and empathetic modes are not sharp enough – but he has the right physicality for the role, and his one-liners supply the film with a welcome sense of humor. The anxiety between his inner life and his interactions with Cummings, a kindhearted woman, are bittersweet and clever. That the humanizing sub-plot culminates with heroic hand-to-hand combat is just icing on the cake.
The JK Simmons character is genuinely baffling. Dubuque hides his agenda, and how he fits into the danger that Wolff and Cummings find themselves in. Unfortunately, the transition between the second and third act is a languid exposition dump, one where King gives a monologue about Wolff’s understated empathy, as well as his evolution from a low-rent criminal into a Machiavellian genius – but the good kind. It is lazy storytelling that sacrifices character development in favor messy espionage. Dubuque has more twists in store, and yet any shrewd viewer will see them long before the halfway point. The saving grace of this kitchen sink approach is that some scenes are effective, anyway. There is an emotional component in the climax – Affleck finally finds the turmoil under Wolff’s bland exterior – as well as a brusque punchline to a joke that builds for most of the running time.
O’Connor is a workmanlike director of action. He does not have a natural eye for composition, but he uses sound design and blunt choreography to give each bullet, punch, and kick an added dose of brutality. Aside from the Batman films (The Accountant has its own version of a bat cave and Commissioner Gordon), the film it most closely resembles in John Wick. The aforementioned climax is in a hyper-modern mansion that is similar to the one John Wick defends from intruders. John Wick was directed by journeyman action choreographers, however, so that action has graceful fluidity to it. The Accountant does not, and its muddled collage of thriller tropes ultimately made me yearn for better, more economical films that remember to be fun, too.