In 1988, Oscar-grabbing blockbuster Rain Man drew the blueprint for portraying autism in mainstream cinema, painting the condition as a kind of adorable super power, thanks to Dustin Hoffman’s shuffling performance as maths savant Raymond Babbitt. The Accountant riffs on this now familiar approach, imbuing its autistic lead character Christian Wolff (Affleck) with a supernatural talent for preparing accurate tax returns, but also shooting guns — especially the gigantic sniper rifle he keeps in his modest rural home. Could there be more to this finicky loner than meets the eye?
Of course there is — it soon transpires he’s using his small-town accounting business as a front for a more lucrative role, processing money for international crime lords. However, when treasury investigator Raymond King (J.K. Simmons) starts sniffing around, Wolff decides to take on a more legitimate contract — helping the founder of a robotics company find the $60 million that’s gone missing from the firm’s coffers. Clue: it hasn’t fallen down the back of the sofa.
What follows is a stilted tale of financial irregularity and bloody revenge, uniting various parties in a desperate but ultimately futile search for dramatic tension. Wolff turns up at the robot factory, does some complicated sums, meets plucky young accountancy junior Dana (Anna Kendrick), and accidentally uncovers a scandal, while King inexplicably blackmails one of his own staff into investigating Wolff’s shady CV.
Nothing makes an awful lot of sense.
Intercut with the contemporary action are little snippets of the protagonist’s troubled upbringing with a crazed military father, who thinks the best way to deal with autism is to expose his boy to all the things he’s terrified of — while also teaching him martial arts. What could possibly go wrong? Sure enough, as Wolff is drawn deeper into the movie’s elaborate corruption plot, we discover that he’s an efficient and emotionless killer, dispatching hitmen and mercenaries with cold, calculated indifference.
But The Accountant does get lots of little details about autism right: Affleck has trouble with eye contact, doesn’t understand complex social cues, irony or gratitude, and likes to separate all the different foods on his dinner plate. He
also gets very upset when he can’t finish a task, whether that’s a jigsaw puzzle or the robotics company’s complicated accounting situation when his contract is abruptly cancelled. But as soon as the killing starts, the movie shifts gear and presents a kind of weaponised autism, where an inability to express empathy is wilfully re-read as an inability to actually feel it.
Affleck’s performance isn’t bad and we get excellent if familiar supporting turns from Kendrick, John Lithgow and Simmons. But nothing makes an awful lot of sense. Character motivations are glossed over, explanatory scenes are jammed in haphazardly, and the finale relies on a tonally bizarre combination of schmaltz, coincidence and violence that seems to betray the arc of the whole movie.
An epilogue at the close of the movie acts like a public information film about how people with autism are not dangerous loners, they’re just different — a point that the proceeding two hours does its best to muddy. Indeed, The Accountant is as confusing and seemingly futile as an HMRC tax credit form — and it only takes marginally less time to complete.