Overview: An autistic accountant, who lends his services to various criminal organizations, leads a double life as an assassin with a strict moral code. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2016; Rated R; 128 minutes.
“I Know the Pieces Fit”: The Accountant doesn’t fall into place until Ben Affleck’s Christian Wolff reveals what it is that drives him: incongruity. Up until that point in the film, we’re left with weird odds and ends, snarls of tangled story that fray at the point between gripping excitement and impenetrable confusion. This discussion of incongruity stems from Wolff’s appreciation of the infamous painting, Dogs Playing Poker. While the film initially misleads us with an opening scene of young Christian putting together a puzzle, The Accountant is not a puzzle film; it’s Dogs Playing Poker, where everything is right in front of us but doesn’t operate according to the logic we’re used to seeing play out in film. We see this incongruity in Christian’s moral code, in the clients’ books he finds himself Beautiful Minding over, in surprising bursts of humor found in his violence and social awkwardness, and even in the difference in size between the broad-shouldered bulk of Affleck and the demure frame of his love interest, Dana, played by Anna Kendrick. A film tonally, structurally, and occasionally aesthetically at odds with itself shouldn’t work, and yet Gavin O’Connor manages not only to make it work, but push the incongruous pieces together into a wholly satisfying experience.
In many ways, particularly in its slow character building that’s punctuated by brutal acts of violence, clockwork organization of flashbacks, and its refusal to spell things out to the audience until latest possible moment, The Accountant feels very similar to the popular Korean films of the early 2000s. These films that focused on complicated morals woven into even more complicated narrative structures, are the films The Accountant owes its identity to, far more than the puzzle-driven and action-oriented Bourne films that so many have cited as an influence. The Accountant may star American actors, in an American setting, and come from the hands of one of the most America-centric of Hollywood studios, but there’s something unmistakably foreign about it. This is ultimately ironic given how much it plays off of the most American form of entertainment: the superhero film.
“Twirling Round With This Familiar Parable:” On the hunt for Christian Wolff is a young Treasury Agent, Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) who is blackmailed into her chase by a senior agent, Ray King (J.K. Simmons). What initially seems like an arrangement of plot beats seen in a dozen or more government-centric thriller films becomes something else as the realization is made that Wolff isn’t a greed-driven villain, but a vigilante whose efforts have directly helped the U.S. Department of Treasury. Beyond simply the involvement of Affleck and Simmons, there exists an amusing alternate take on the Batman mythos that’s central to The Accountant’s themes. Wolff’s investigation into missing funds from a robotic prosthetics company sets him up for a conflict with his shadowy other (Jon Bernthal), a parallel figure that can almost match Wolff’s fighting skills if not his mind. If this all sounds a bit comic booky, you’re on the right track. By the time we comprehend enough information to understand that The Accountant isn’t an organized crime thriller but a response to the modern superhero movie, a film that runs parallel to the genre without fitting into it. This revelation doesn’t come across as a frustrating result of mismarketing, to be fair the film’s poster even fashioned the title as a kind of mask over the top half of Affleck’s head. The Accountant’s use of the superhero film stands as an amusing revelation in lieu of the nearly two decades of films that have prepared us for this kind of twist on the familiar. This entire film year has been built so much around superhero movies that attempted to shake up the status quo by using our familiarity to deconstruct the genre. Some of these attempts have been more successful than others, but The Accountant is the only one to use those ideas without fanfare or the use of previously existing source material. So much of the controversy surrounding those types of films are the questions of morals, and what superheroes mean in our world today. The Accountant takes the incongruity of these competing ideologies and tones from competing properties to create the sum total of these characters and companies, one that can freely function without a need for a costume or congruity. Dark and gritty, while being punctuated by moments of genuine humor, deconstructing while upholding key topes, plot dense yet emotionally satisfying, The Accountant is proof that you really can add all these elements up.
“My Shadow’s Shedding Skin”: For all The Accountant’s complicated plotting and thematic gravitas, the film wouldn’t work half as well as it does without Ben Affleck’s performance. Wolff’s high-functioning autism isn’t used as a gimmick, but as an identity that the film’s entire construction plays off of. Wolff carries himself like a man invisible, but his large frame makes him impossible not to notice in a room, like a version of Clark Kent who forgot to button the top of his shirt and left his S peeking out. We get the sense that Wolff appreciates the occasional attention, yet, because he doesn’t quite know how to react to it he rejects it. This rejection of added hassle or discomfort also plays into his line of work, both as accountant and as assassin. Whether it be numbers or people, Affleck destroys anything that creates chaos for others and his own peace of mind. Following the bullet-strewn path of The Equalizer and John Wick, The Accountant is another example of the changed terms of our action heroes. We no longer want the gleaming muscled, one-liner cracking hero of the 80s. Unless they’re clad in costumes, we want figures who are coldly efficient and leave no room for excuses or serpent-tongued manipulation. Perhaps this change stems from the fact that so much of the state of the world seems to be run by lies, manipulation, and half-truths. As a film that creates a parabola from the morals we say we want in action films and the tropes we cling to in our superhero blockbusters, The Accountant delivers a hero that stands as a mismatched example of our desperate search for a moral code to believe in during the second decade of the 21st century.
Overall: In its challenge to the identity of 21st century American thriller and superhero film, The Accountant offers up a refreshing equation that may not be the answer to the question of modern heroism, but it sure makes for an engaging consideration.
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Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures