(Originally published 4 December 2016)
(SPOILER WARNING!!!!!! Later on down the article, I will be discussing The Accountant as a whole, and will therefore spoil the entire goddamn movie. You have been warned)
Sooooo…they made an action hero autistic man with math powers.
The Accountant is a 2016 movie starring Ben Affleck as…well, an accountant named Christian Wolff. He uses his CPA license as a front for his work with dangerous criminals to help them uncook their books. To handle the clearly dangerous situations he will cross, he is trained in both hand-to-hand combat and weaponry from his army man father, and has a comms assistant who tracks these financial matters who he only interacts with via phone calls. He is also a high functioning autistic, meaning his highly competent accounting and fighting skills are matched by poor social manner and a meticulously habitual nature.
So look, I’m someone who cares a lot about the portrayal of autism and AS in the media. For personal reasons, I believe we need more characters with the condition for people, particularly kids, to relate to. And I, of course, get pretty goddamn uppity when people mischaracterise or flat out fail to write them respectfully and accurately. I have to say it, though…this movie does a surprisingly good job giving us what is basically an autistic superhero. It’s a pity it’s at the expense of a coherent narrative for him.
What hurts its film is its plot. While this isn’t directly the fault of them focusing on the lead’s personality or the respectful portrayal of a condition that affects approximately 74 million people, there seems to be a vested interest in making The Accountant a franchise rather than a competent film. While this isn’t to say that their portrayal wasn’t well intentioned, this predisposition on making this character as perfect as possible seems to come at the expense of the storytelling at hand.
There is a trend in modern Hollywood filmmaking that sacrifices careful storytelling in order to ‘sell’ the audience the movie they are watching. This seems to be popularised by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so I’m calling it ‘Making a Marvel’ because I am so fucking clever (LOVE ME, MASSES!!!!). Where it succeeds with Marvel films (…most of the time) is that their world building and franchise selling is usually limited to small references throughout the movie and kept for the post-credit sequences. A good film Making a Marvel will sell you the film first, and the franchise second (DC seem to have a particularly bad problem grasping this). While the MCU has its own issues, this is not one of them. It is, however, a problem for the other movies that try to imitate what they do blindly (another example off the top of my head would the recent Independence Day sequel).
How this relates to The Accountant is that they are clearly gunning for a franchise with this guy. A lot of effort is spent on making this guy cool and likeable while also selling the autistic angle. When I say they try too hard is that he’s a bit…too perfect? Which is weird because the guy is laundering money through his CPA business and working for international criminals and mobsters (but that’s okay because he has some ‘moral code’ bollix that stops him from interacting with REALLY really bad guys, I guess?) But he’s also honourable and loyal and sweet and kind of rude and murders people but they were asking for it anyway plus he was talked into it either way and you see why I get such dissonance from this?
Outside of this, as I was saying above, the need to make this film sell seems to come as a consequence to its structure. The plot of The Accountant is a bit of a mess. Now, not all movies need a rigid three act structure, that’s true. However, it’s usually a handy thing to stick to if you want your movie to remain consistent and satisfying to an audience in an approximate 2 hour time frame, especially if you’re making a crowd pleasing action flick. I won’t bore you with the specifics of act structure, but I’ll use a few elements of conventional storytelling in these kinds of movies and outline why The Accountant really failed to follow them which, on top of making their lead a bit too “perfect”, really sunk this film for me.
This is a little obvious. We need to set the ground work for our hero or heroes to make them relatable and understand their priorities and motivations in the story. So, from here on out, there is no limitation on spoilers-I’m going to reveal the entire plot. So, with the assumption that you’ve seen the film (or don’t care), here is the background for the lead, Christian Wolff:
Christian is a high functioning autistic man with an incredible git for mathematics. After his father refuses to let him live in a neuroscience research facility, believing life should toughen him out. This causes his mother to crack under the pressure and abandon them, leaving her husband to raise Christian and his younger brother on his own. He had them both trained in martial arts and sharpshooting, and eventually Christian joins the army. Christian talks his father into attending his mother’s funeral (who had moved on with a new family), and a scuffle at the wake results in Christian’s father getting killed and him being landed in jail. There, he meets criminal accountant Francis Silverberg, who teaches Christian about criminal financial dealings in between letting his sons know that there’s always money in the banana stand.
There’s a little more to this, but there you have it-a little silly, but pretty straightforward backstory for our protagonist. However, the movie has an…interesting way of getting it across. It’s told mostly in flashback throughout the runtime, which isn’t a bad way of telling it. It’s been done in movies since time immemorial (or…a couple of decades, movies aren’t that old). The problem with this is that it doesn’t build to much and leaves a character we need investment in with a lot of his story left unfilled.
To use a non-action example, The Imitation Game teases out the backstory of Alan Turing throughout, and while it’s not an aspect I’m all that fond of, it serves its purpose of showing how his sexuality has been a dominating presence throughout his life in a world that refused to accept it. It works to inform the narrative. Doing this for Wolff takes potential character building to create a mystery about him that has no real payoff. It helps with nothing except to give purpose to a subplot that really doesn’t need to be there.
So I guess I should talk about that next.
Stories tend to need subplots to break up the potentially monotonous nature of the main plot and are used to expand upon the world and the characters. The B-plot here is following FinCEN director Raymond King (JK Simmon), and an employee he blackmailed named Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) figure out who Wolff is.
All-in-all, not a bad set up. The problem is, as mentioned above, info on Wolff really shouldn’t be something so haphazard and scattered throughout the narrative like it is. Why can’t we discover stuff about our lead through our lead? Whatever happened to show, don’t tell? What’s worse is that this really does seem interesting, but it doesn’t do anything to justify its own purpose within the story.
Then, of course, there’s it’s resolution. The reveal that King was being contacted by The Voice with information on criminals not meeting Wolff’s code really takes the wind out of the sails of the entire story. Why did we follow these characters around if one of them knew so much about him, even if it’s supposed to be a test to see if Medina can take his place as the contact? Wouldn’t that be something Wolff decides-he manages to keep in touch with King, why not scan the people working in the Treasury department and find a suitable placement? Could there be any less convoluted way than blackmailing another employee into finding his house in order to prove her worth?
Also, it never coalesces with the main plot. The characters in this subplot never physically interact with Wolff in the present day scenes, so they have no bearing on the story. They just seem to be there to make Wolff look cooler. Or maybe to set up the world for an upcoming sequel? Which still doesn’t justify how wasted they are here, and how they could be removed and lose nothing of the story, but still that’s how people will defend it if this actually happens?
So let’s talk about the main plot.
The main tension in a story usually revolves around our hero being put into a conflict introduced in the first act he will spend the majority of the movie trying to resolve. While I’m not a mind reader (yet) and I’ve never met the screenwriter to confirm nor deny this, I get the impression that The Accountant saw its main plot as a burden, more like something that had to be there because this is a movie and movies need plots. This is particularly shown in how we find out who the villain is. We narrow down the two ‘whodunnits’ and get to the REAL villain who everybody probably guessed from his opening frame because they make it so obvious (John Lithgow is wasted in this, btw).
Underdevelopment is also a problem for the love interest, played by Anna Kendrick. Which is a huge issue, as they make a big deal about him getting involved in this because of her, and it just doesn’t feel authentic. They have a few scene where they interact, but nothing about it really gets across why he’s going to risk his life for this woman. Perhaps if the story wasn’t so scattershot and focused on a completely arbitrary plot this wouldn’t be an issue?
Now, there doesn’t really need to be that compelling a conflict to make a movie work. The Raid has an incredibly simple plot, but that film is engaging and thrilling throughout its runtime. The problem for The Accountant is that there is such little momentum and intrigue anywhere else that nothing ever really takes off here. They’re so busy teasing us to a great movie that never comes.
I’m not doing a segueway into my final point.
The climax is not terrible (if there is one thing that remains consistent, as flat as most of the direction is, the action sequences are pretty solid). The freaking twist is.
So family is a major theme, as you could surmise. Wolff was raised by his father, he went on a murder spree after his father-figure died out of prison, he spared King’s life because he said he was a good father, Marybeth was motivated by her sister, Lithgow’s character Blackburn has his sister killed to show how totes evil he is, it’s implied that the neuroscience guy kept in contact and helped Wolff because of the bond he had with his daughter (who is the Voice)-they’re not subtle is what I’m getting that. So having Wolff’s brother Brax be the big twist is thematically sound, it’s just badly implemented.
For one, it’s way too telegraphed and predictable. For another, it really changes nothing about the ending. Wolff and Brax confront each other, Lithgow gets killed…and nada. They act like this moment turns the movie on its head and completely changes the dynamic of the final few moments (which is what a twist in the third act is supposed to do), but it really doesn’t. it just kind of kills the momentum of the climax for a weak twist for a ‘theme’ that, to be honest, I’m not really sure is really trying to say anything (family is…good?).
It just feels like they needed a cool twist so people would talk about the ending having an impact and leaving the audience on a high rather than it being kind of pointless and not needed. Hell, Brax doesn’t even come back after that scene!
So what’s the point in outlining this? With this movie in particular?
Honestly, I think it’s an interesting case study of an emblematic problem. Movies don’t seem to be made to please people; they seem to be made as this constant marketing machine to get people to go see more films and franchise the fuck out of things. The MCU, for better or for worse, has affected how movies are packaged, how they are distributed and how they are presented to the audience/consumer. But there’s a line between artistry and corporatising.
The Accountant was so busy trying to sell me how awesome the idea of this autistic savant bad-ass was that it failed to give him a solid story to showcase this. It shouldn’t have to go down like this-I mean, remove Indiana Jones from Raiders and you still have a fun Nazi story. The character should not be the only reason the movie functions, a character should make the movie function within a solid framework. That’s how you connect to an audience, that’s how you sell a franchise.
By all means, continue to try to shill out these thinly-veiled products to an ever-growing cynical public to find something that connects. I encourage that, and I feel this movie was so close to getting something special that it makes it even more disappointing. Either make a competent story for an aspirational hero, or don’t make mine Marvel.
You know, I think I’ll talk more about movie marketing in the future…