The Accountant Is a Moral and Narrative Trainwreck

The Ben Affleck vehicle about an autistic action hero begins promisingly—and then falls completely apart.

Warner Bros.

Even by contemporary standards, The Accountant has a truly silly premise. Ben Affleck stars as “Christian Wolff”—one of several aliases he’s chosen from the ranks of historic mathematicians—a high-functioning autistic savant who applies his numerical gifts as a forensic accountant for global criminal syndicates.

But wait, there’s more! To toughen him up when he was a fragile child, Chris’s father, a psy-ops officer in the military, arranged for him to train with “a variety of specialists”—and they did not specialize in autism. (Chris’s dad specifically nixed such assistance, leading Chris’s mom to leave the family.) They specialized in methods of killing people, including such esoterica as long-range sniping and an Indonesian martial art called Pencak Silat.

As a result, Chris is pretty much the superhero you’d get if you combined Christian Bale’s Batman with his Michael Burry from The Big Short. He has a beautiful mind and a beautiful high-powered rifle. (Several, actually, stashed in a trailer that also houses gold bullion, comic books, and priceless originals by Renoir and Pollack.)

Yet silly though it may be, The Accountant, directed by Gavin O’Connor, is actually a fair amount of fun for its first two thirds or so. Affleck brings big-screen charisma, understated wit, and a hint of tenderness to the role of Chris, a man who wants to connect with other people but doesn’t quite know how; Anna Kendrick does her winsome Anna-Kendrick thing as a CPA unknowingly entangled in a diabolical corporate scheme; J.K. Simmons and Jon Bernthal offer solid supporting performances as, respectively, a Treasury agent and an elite hitman; and the great Jeffrey Tambor is even tucked in there, as a white-collar con in a high-security prison. (Shades of Arrested Development!) Chris’s frequent skirmishes are nicely choreographed—including a memorable sequence in which he brings a belt to a knife fight—and there is something genuinely moving in the film’s portrait of an explicitly autistic action hero.

Alas, in its final third, the movie runs off the rails with astonishing velocity. Simmons’s character is required to offer perhaps the most painful mouthful of expository backstory to be heard onscreen this year. (Honestly: About half of the movie’s entire plot emerges in a five-minute monologue.) O’Connor’s initially light directorial touch veers repeatedly into the soggy. Kendrick’s character is forgotten for long stretches, and Bernthal’s—after two excellent early scenes—is given virtually nothing more to do. Worst of all, a chain of coincidences unspools that is so abjectly ridiculous it almost beggars description.

But arguably worse than this narrative trainwreck is the film’s utter moral incoherence. (Very mild spoilers ensue.) The entire concept of Affleck’s character is that he works for the worst of the worst: drug cartels, global terrorists, etc. Yet the film portrays him in an exclusively positive light, as if he’s a victim of the people he chooses to work for—“who survives this kind of clientele?” Simmons’s character asks—rather than their accomplice. The only clients we actually witness him working for are an affable older couple and a seemingly legitimate robotics company. Indeed, it’s later revealed that he occasionally turns in his criminal clients when they violate his “moral code”—a code that doesn’t seem to have any problem with their being nefarious global criminals in the first place.

Nor is it just Affleck’s character. Simmons’s Treasury agent, who is first introduced blackmailing a sympathetic subordinate (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) with the threat of prison, turns out to be a perfectly decent guy. So does the hired killer played by Bernthal. Even Chris’s abusive dad is abruptly recast in a gentler light, despite the lack of any visible redemption. Presumably the (literally) dozens of assassins sent after Chris would eventually have been revealed to be swell dudes, too, if Chris hadn’t killed them first.

Make no mistake: The movie isn’t some wicked subversion (or attempted subversion) suggesting that the world is so corrupt that the bad guys are really the good guys. Rather it’s a movie that can’t figure out what might constitute a good or a bad guy in the first place (apart, of course, from being in any way mean to Anna Kendrick). It’s as if the film’s moral compass were in the presence of a powerful yet erratic electromagnet.

This might not be a problem—plenty of actioners are enjoyably amoral—if The Accountant didn’t simultaneously insist on pitching itself as a message movie on behalf of people with autism. But it does, as its tremendously treacly (if no doubt well-intentioned) conclusion makes all too clear. Is the viewing public ready for an action franchise featuring an autistic hero? I hope so. But moviegoers and people with autism alike deserve one better than The Accountant.