Directed by Gavin O’Connor
I’m not a big fan of Ben Affleck as an actor. Although he’s won two Academy Awards, they’ve been for writing and producing – two things I’d rather watch him do than act. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh, but I find it hard to connect with most of his performances unless he’s being snarky or playing a character with a limited range of emotions.
And Gavin O’Connor, who has made some decent movies in the past (“Tumbleweeds,” “Warrior,” “Pride and Glory”) is fresh off “Jane Got a Gun” – which was painfully uninteresting, despite combining Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor and Joel Edgerton in a Western. In fairness, it was a dull story that would have been hard to lift but it’s unlikely to feature heavily in his career highlight reel.
And yet “The Accountant” was appealing to me as soon as I saw the first preview. There’s something inherently appealing about the typically downtrodden guy kicking ass and taking names.
The basic premise is that Affleck’s character has an autism spectrum disorder and is better with numbers and bookkeeping than he is with people. On the one hand it’s neat and positive to see a character with a severe communication limitation as a small child depicted as such a capable and self-sufficient adult. On the other hand, it’s not so positive to see a backstory in which it’s implied that he was bullied into high functionality and ended up so easily prone to self-protective violence.
The backstories in “The Accountant” are its weakest moments. The idea would work with a character who was simply at his best when cold and calculating. Taken at that simplistic level, mathematics and killing can be made to fit together in a narrative sense (and I say that as somebody with a degree in mathematics). It’s not that the autism storyline is especially bad, it’s that the film spends too much time with multiple “Karate Kid” style flashbacks in an attempt to explain what could have been stated as effectively in less time. The outcome is that each successive flashback does more to take you out of the flow of the film than it does to add context.
Meanwhile, the film includes an audience surrogate in the form of a young corporate accountant played by Anna Kendrick. She encounters him during a deep dive into forensic accounting at her workplace and is introduced to his many character quirks as well as his weapons stash and fighting abilities. He has to tell her enough about himself for it all to make sense – and she’s not watching the same flashbacks that we are. The same is true for the career agent (J.K. Simmons) who’s passing on his case to a younger colleague (Cynthia Adai-Robinson) – more flashbacks and more interruptions.
I generally enjoy origin stories, as characters gain their skills and come to terms with them. But this film doesn’t do that part well enough to make it worthwhile. That said, I did enjoy it fairly consistently as long as it remained in the film’s present – with Affleck as the adult character equally adept with a tax code or a rifle. In a small world sense, there are moments when it has tiny glimmers of his buddy Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne characterization, in the ease with which he moves through a crowd of villains, and even tinier glimmers of Will Hunting’s prodigious math abilities.
In these moments, the film and Affleck both connect. Going from double entries to double-tapping while maintaining the same straight face – he’s in that limited range of emotions sweet spot and it works. I just wish it had stayed that simple.
There’s a fascinating true story behind “Denial,” in which historian Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) has to defend herself against alleged libel charges brought by David Irving (Timothy Spall) whom she had accused of being a holocaust denier. In essence, she and her lead lawyers (Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson) not only have to prove that the holocaust occurred but that Irving deliberately lied about it. The problem is that while fascinating, it’s not especially cinematic. The inside of an English courtroom and a libel suit don’t yield the kind of “You can’t handle the truth!” moments of witnesses folding before manipulative lawyers as “A Few Good Men,” to maintain that example. The acting is wonderful and the story is compelling but it’s all rather anti-climactic in practice. I’m happy to have seen and to have been familiarized with the case, but it’s not an easy film to express any great enthusiasm for outside of an appreciation of the cast or an interest in the subject matter.