Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant is an extraordinarily silly genre film posing as a character study. Its concept, of high-functioning autistic bean counter Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) doubling as a monstrously skilled killer, promises something offbeat in a year of tediously uniform multiplex offerings. It says something about the state of American films, however, that Chris, all antisocial glowering and single-minded focus on objectives, is scarcely distinguishable from your run-of-the-mill, blockbuster-headlining antihero. In fact, the biggest difference between Affleck’s protagonist and the actor’s miserable take on the Dark Knight in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is that the latter’s trauma stems from the absence of a father, while the former was actively conditioned by his paterfamilias.
In fairness to Affleck, he does duck many of the clichés that mar portrayals of autism. Chris’s moments of uncontrollable emotion are almost entirely restricted to flashbacks of his childhood, and even the character’s mannerisms—tapping fingers on tables, blowing on his hands before touching things—aren’t lingered upon, instead performed with the absent-minded calm of settled routine. Affleck appears to recognize the fundamentally trashy core beneath O’Connor’s sedate, measured direction and the film’s generally somber tone, and he subtly plays up Chris’s social interactions not for pity, but for oddly relatable comedy. Interrupted during a private lunch at one point, Chris doesn’t become hostile, but his body language stiffens like a board, and the exasperation on his face as he endures small talk comes off as office humor. Later, when his more illicit activities draw heat and he must kill an attacker in front of people he knows, Chris comes out of his bloodlust shakily, remembering his nearby friends and jerking his arm upward in an awkward wave as if trying to offer a normal goodbye. It’s the most engaging Affleck has been in years, despite playing such an alienated character.
Chris finds himself in the middle of two conflicts as The Accountant progresses. In one, a Treasury Department investigation headed by Director Raymond King (J.K. Simmons) and underling Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) seeks to discover Chris’s true identity after tying his accounting work to laundering and bookkeeping activities by various international criminal organizations. Elsewhere, Chris attempts to lie low by taking a legitimate client, a robotics firm with a discrepancy in their books. Chris’s preternatural number-crunching skills compress the timespan of technical research, with the accountant able to pore over more than a decade of complex, contradictory documents in a single night as montages of superimposed invoices and annual reports reflect his lightning-fast work.
But no sooner does Chris uncover the holes in the company’s records than he’s targeted by a corporate fixer (Jon Bernthal) and his team of mercenaries, who also set out to kill Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), the internal accountant who first discovered the expensive discrepancy in the robotics firm’s dealings. From this point, the film juggles a “follow the money” procedural with this corporate espionage thriller, producing two competing tones that never reconcile into one fluid narrative.
Dana is initially an amusing contrast to Chris, with his introverted, uncomfortable silences juxtaposed with the effervescent, ingratiatingly enthusiastic demeanor that’s become Kendrick’s stock in trade. As emotionally opposite colleagues united by a shared love of numbers, they make a fine pair, at times becoming an entertaining double act, particularly when Chris lets his guard down with genuine delight at her accounting acumen. Inevitably, however, Dana is reduced to a mere motivating element, a possible love interest to stir his emotional involvement for the first time. Their relationship is indicative of all the shortcuts that the film’s narrative takes, from the identity of the employer of the mercenaries to the true identity of Bernthal’s character, all twists that can be spotted from a mile away.
As tedious as all this interpersonal drama is, however, the film does offer pleasantly choreographed action scenes, each shot with a sense of efficiency and clarity befitting the protagonist’s attention to detail. The Accountant’s final set piece in particular exudes a coherent functionality that used to be the baseline of Hollywood action filmmaking, as the crisp, unhurried editing follows Chris’s furious but measured tear through mercenaries, weaving around a compound that’s always laid out with spatial continuity. This sequence doesn’t strive for spectacular viscera, aware that Chris’s skills are frightening enough without feeling like you’re on the receiving end of them. Ironically, by not attempting to oversell thrills, O’Connor has produced some of the few genuinely exciting action scenes of the year.