Casting Ben Affleck as an emotionless, taciturn automaton is an instant slam-dunk for meme generation, which makes The Accountant an easy and obvious target for side-eye. But wouldn’t you know it: The film works, and it works in large part because of Affleck, who has set aside his latter-day clout and directorial ambitions to star in what is fundamentally a respectable version of John Wick, a film in which Keanu Reeves set aside absolutely nothing just to remind us all that he’s more vital at 50 than most of us are at 30. Figuring out what Affleck is trying to prove in The Accountant is a good deal trickier, but beneath his impassive, unreadable expressions, we can tell, against all odds, that he’s having a good time.
The film might label this little detail as “incongruous,” but for that to make sense you’ll have to acquaint yourself with Affleck’s character, Christian Wolff, a genius-level mathematician and CPA by day and preternaturally deadly button man by night. He’s the kind of guy who would rather tell you why he finds a joke funny than laugh. He’s also the kind of guy who will murder you and all of your friends if you and all of your friends step out of line and offend him. It’s not that he’s thin-skinned. It’s that he happens to hang around a lot of bad people, and the line for crossing him is therefore necessarily thin. The Accountant doesn’t establish how thin right away, though, preferring instead to treat the definitions of Christian’s boundaries as a mystery, slowly burning its way toward sequences of classy, efficiently brutal action peppered by head shots.
Here’s the basic setup: Christian, the autistic child of a U.S. Colonel (Robert C. Treveiler), runs a small accounting firm in the middle of nowhere in Illinois, offering financial forensics services to a global clientele of Seriously Bad People™. In attempt to don a veil of legitimacy and throw off the Department of Treasury’s investigations into his activities, Christian decides to take on a robotics company (run by John Lithgow, of all people) as a customer, which tips the dominos of his existence and forces him to shoot a lot of people in the face. Put in short, the film is a cat-and-mouse procedural thriller on its whole wheat side and an “assassin on the run” actioner on its frosted side. Somehow, director Gavin O’Connor manages to make both sides feel crucial, though it goes without saying that The Accountant is more enjoyable when it’s dusting your palette with sugar.
Praising O’Connor for not allowing one of his film’s two halves to end up superfluous nearly strikes as condescending. That’s a basic achievement, the kind of feat that any filmmaker worth their salt should be able to pull off in every single project, and, if we’re being honest, he succeeds only just: The Accountant’s procedural sub-plot exists mostly to fill in pieces of exposition for the sake of lending the primary assassin plot cohesion, though a tighter and more disciplined cut of the film could easily have gotten away with excising dogged Treasury agent Ray King’s (J.K. Simmons) pursuit of Christian’s true identity, aided by agent Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson). Medina and King serve functions of narrative that are only essential by the strictest definition of the word. We don’t mind their involvement, but the film is much more satisfying when it’s focused on Affleck, who spends his time playing in a big sandbox filled with the dust and soot of films like The Professional and A Beautiful Mind.
Maybe the real miracle is that all of the perfunctory manhunt stuff here avoids being totally dull. The truth is that you’re here to watch Affleck portray a highly mannered killing machine. You could also reasonably argue that The Accountant is Batman practice. At the very least it’s a hushed love note to all things comic bookish: The Airstream trailer Christian keeps in storage is packed with money in both paper and metal forms, plus false IDs in case he has to skip town, plus original paintings by Renoir and Pollock, plus an ass-ton of guns, plus plus an Action Comics collection that’s probably worth a substantial chunk of The Accountant’s production budget. He isn’t Bruce Wayne, but he might just be the kid who grew up reading about Bruce Wayne’s crime fighting adventures.
The meta-interpretations of these elements don’t add up to much of value, but they do keep the film anchored in the proper spirit. The Accountant might be more serious than John Wick—it’s certainly less action-oriented—but its tonal shifts invite us not to take its story too seriously. O’Connor stages violence with affecting brutality: Bullets don’t simply register as red, splattered dots on foreheads, but as impact craters on flesh. At the same time, Affleck has cute, awkward banter with Anna Kendrick, who shows up here as bookkeeper Dana Cummings at that aforementioned robotics company. We know that Cummings is in over her head as soon as Christian arrives at her place of business, and we also know, thanks to the laws of genre, that she and Christian will end up bonding with each other. First they have a clumsy chat about Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, then they geek out after stumbling upon financial fraud.
They’re adorable together, but The Accountant isn’t an adorable movie. It’s a movie in the vein of your Haywires or your Hannas, where action is integral to the film’s drama but the drama remains at the forefront of the experience. Maybe there’s a leaner version of The Accountant lurking in its slightly overlong structure, but you won’t mind all of its excess when all of its killin’ is so damn good.
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Writer: Bill Dubuque
Starring: Ben Affleck, Jon Bernthal, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, John Lithgow
Release Date: October 14, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.