The Accountant – a movie review
Last evening, we went to see a movie, The Accountant, with a large group of friends. It had been one of the few films that all of us had not seen. It would certainly not have been my first choice since the movie was billed as an action-thriller, and I am probably your typical middle class old age movie snob. In fact, after the movie was over and we did a survey of who liked the film, about half said it was just ok and a few did not care for the movie. Without my and my wife’s votes, the film would have been given a 5 or 6 out of 10 average. However, both of us would have given the movie an 8. We were the outliers.
Why the discrepancy?
From the discussions we had afterwards, I attribute the explanation to three factors:
• The difficulty of following three different plots as they were interwoven at very different rates with sudden subtle and frequent shifts
• The large quantity of those twists and turns in that plot
• Missing the underlying symbolic and moral thrust of the movie.
Though most were not put off by the general mayhem and the large number of comic book murders of a thriller of this type, and most agreed that Ben Affleck, whom I do not ordinarily care for as an actor, did an excellent job in this movie. Nevertheless, we evaluated the movie in general terms very differently.
All of us had been entertained, but to very different degrees. We agreed that Ben Affleck had been subtle and suitably subdued, nuanced and even empathetic, playing a very odd comic book superhero, Christian (Chris) Wolff. (This core alias is not just a disguise but a source of revelation.) We also agreed the film was an excellent advertisement for autism, for Chris was autistic, a fact established at the very beginning of the film with the flashback to his childhood, but reasonably disguised in a very stoic performance when he had become an adult and, by and large, strictly controls expressing any inappropriate emotions – except his unusual degree of control.
Chris, however, exhibits all the symptoms of the more serious cases of autism of the 1 in 68 children mentioned in the film, mostly boys. The film, in one of its early flashbacks – and there are many of them – with the peculiar habits of children and the way they line up toys and other objects. As an adult, Chris is very precise in how he places his three pancakes, his two perfectly-made sunny-side-up eggs and broken bacon strips on his plate. He clearly lives alone and the very few pieces of cutlery are placed meticulously in his cutlery drawer.
As a child, Chris has a terrible time relating to other children, except to his younger and very loyal brother, Braxton (badger, a kind of mole) who watches him with overwhelming frustration at his own impotence while expressing deep concern. Chris, however, does seem to make a connection with the daughter of the head of the Harbor Neuroscience Institute in New Hampshire where his parents take him for an evaluation. She too is an autistic youngster, the daughter of the director of the institute. Chris is very sensitive to sound, especially loud noises, but in adult life seems to have developed a ritual of subjecting himself to very large and loud noises for a period of time as a form of exercise that enables him to keep the presentation of his idiosyncratic behaviour under reasonable control when he is an adult.
There is a paradox, however. Chris as both a child and an adult clearly loves routine and unvaried patterns of behaviour to the point that he returns to his house in his pickup truck at the precise high speed as the garage door manages to just completely open and he stops on a dime at exactly the same spot. But why does he drive a truck?
More significantly, we know that autistic children easily, and worryingly, put themselves in harm’s way, but Chris as an adult unusually seems to have made a vocation of courting danger. It turns out that he is a superhero, but without a cape. Instead, he normally wears an accountant’s suit. But he is far superior to both Batman, who is now barely younger than I am, but he stays ageless and I do not and his civilian disguise as the very wealthy Bruce Wayne with his butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Further, he is plausible for he wears no outlandish disguise and instead wears the costume of an average clerk. Further, Chris seems to be a complete loner.
Chris has other traits of an autistic child – difficulty with speech, which in adulthood is expressed by very precise and very controlled articulation of English. Chris is no Rain Man, and, in fact, the performance seems deliberately opposite to the role played by Dustin Hoffman in that now 1988 classic. Though Chris was hyperactive as a child, especially when sounds and changes set him off, and retains that trait as a super-disciplined adult, not only when he becomes engaged in murderous activities, but when, as a forensic accountant, he is stopped from completing his work in his first job examining the books of a legitimate economic enterprise, a huge business enterprise that makes robotics and prosthetics. Chris goes into a frenzy.
Chris attaches himself to specific objects, such as a dented thermos, the origins of which we only learn when we are well into the film. But mostly he is a loner and aloof, and, most of all, he is a savant like the Rain Man with a superhuman ability to manage numbers and calculations, but also a superior, and very human, ability to engage in all the close-up well choreographed violence. The character of Chris is equally differentiated from either the hapless Khan in a recent Dutch film, when the hero’s idiosyncrasies lead him to being arrested as a terrorist, and the role played by Sean Penn as Sam in an old 1998 film, I Am Sam. For what character on the various gradations of autistic character disorder (not Asperger’s Syndrome) can perform such advanced judo and brilliant sharpshooting from a mile distant?
Though one reason for the different reaction among us could have been my love for comics as distinct from the others, but my wife has no interest in comic heroes and she loved the movie. Nor can it have been the subtle associations with the eighteenth century philosopher, Christian Wolff, who, though an associate of the inventor of calculus, Leibniz, was more of a common sense ethicist than a brilliant mathematician like all the other aliases Chris used to hide who he was. Wolff certainly used the Cartesian model of mathematical deduction for doing philosophy, but he was not a mathematical genius like Descartes or Leibniz. That alone might have indicated that this alias was different.
If I were not a philosopher, especially one who once specialized in German philosophy, it would be very unlikely that I would know that Christian Wolff was the most important German philosopher on the German stage between Leibniz and Kant, who was so preeminent after him and, unlike Wolff, has never been forgotten. Though Wolff should not be, for he was a founder of both applied economics and public administration. He was a proto-accountant. So it is no surprise, rather than phony, that as the proprietor of ZZZ Accounting Services in an indistinguishable strip mall somewhere in Illinois, Chris in the movie offers a series of very mundane lessons to a farm couple about how to save money on their taxes and, thereby, save their farm. The point there is not his mathematical wizardry but his ethics.
In contrast to Kant, who tried to articulate the necessary conditions for scientific thinking, for ethics and for judgement in practical affairs, Wolff was the philosopher of the possible. Though he followed Leibniz in viewing the world as constituted by monads that never interacted, an ideal vision for one with autism, his real and most important contribution was to applied ethics with pre-established harmony viewed, not as a metaphysical presumption, but as an aspirational prerequisite for leading an ethical life. So when Chris near the beginning of the film asks the American Federal Treasury agent Ray King (played with deep conviction by J.K. Simmons) at gunpoint, after Chris had murdered eight important mafia figures in cold blood within minutes, whether he was married and had been a good father to his two boys, this is a poignant as well as suspenseful moment.
King answers yes and you will quickly learn whether he is allowed to live or die. If you were one of the rarities in the auditorium who knew who Wolff was, you would know the answer from the ethics promulgated by Christian Wolff, the philosopher. So the rarity of this glimpse into the underlying play with ethics, the history of ideas and other subtleties in the film, cannot be the critical factor in enjoying the richness of the film as my wife certainly did. For the main themes can be grasped without knowing any of these clues.
However, this does suggest that the symbolism was very important. Most viewers watching the film get the joy of grasping the clues to this film somewhere along the way as the film progresses. I personally believe the experience is actually enhanced the sooner you clue in as you wait in suspense to find out whether you are correct rather than in suspense to find out what is going to happen. But watch at the beginning as the autistic boy puts together a 500-1,000-piece puzzle in no time and then loses his composure totally when the final piece at the centre of the puzzle is missing. Watch how low that piece has fallen and see if you can identify the missing piece in the movie plot.
The film is full of rich allusions. Chris Wolff, the accountant not the philosopher, had received two very famous paintings as payment for undertaking forensic work for international criminal gangsters. Look at the painter and what has been painted. In the Jackson Pollock painting that is mounted on the ceiling of his Airstream recreational vehicle stored with his guns and cash in a storage container (why the truck?), the most important abstract painting star in America, whom Ed Harris portrayed in a biopic in 2001 playing an artist who wants to shut the world out as if he were autistic but needs contact with it in order to express his artistic passion. Why was the painting chosen not a Van Gogh? Why was the biopic not chosen of Alec Guinness playing Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth? A needed strand of comic relief could have been added. And look at the mounted piece. The Pollock is a black and white painting from the painter’s drip period, one I did not recognize, but which is reflective of both the way Chris Wolff’s character and the plot are revealed.
Without saying any more, look at the other painter and the painting which hangs on the wall. It is figurative and expressionist rather than abstract. Think about the figurative character akin to the painter rather than the one torn apart like Jackson Pollok. What is the background to the painter and who do the figures in the painting represent? Why is it an impressionist still life painting without the dynamic explosiveness of the Pollock? Think of the figurative painter’s relationship with his mother.
Though disguised as an action-thriller in a movie about white collar crime, look under the surface for the multitude of clues and pieces to the puzzle. Why does the film mirror John Nash’s mathematical equations written on blackboards and walls in A Perfect Mind, where John Nash, a Nobel laureate in economics, but a paranoid schizophrenic rather than autistic personality? The clues are everywhere and there are many, but do not expect to get more than a view on first viewing. But the more you get, the richer the cinematic experience and the deeper the understanding. For example, why is the love unrequited?
But if the film appreciation depended on putting all the pieces of the puzzle together as if all the viewers were savants, the film would not work at all. I think the problem was in the complexity of the plot rather than the bountiful symbolic clues. For it is easy to get lost otherwise without the help of the clues.
Go see the movie and see what you think. At the very least, it will be a delight to watch an accountant of all types turn into a very realistic action hero. And I believe that I have not given away any more than one bead in each of the three strings of the plot. I can assure you that, although it is a comic book action film that begins with a very bloody shootout of a bunch of mobsters within their home turf, where the identity of the shooter is not initially revealed, and although the movie is full of lot more murdered corpses in very well choreographed scenes before the movie is over, and although it is an excellent crime thriller, at its heart and core it a family film. You soon learn that Chris Wolff is not really a badass. Gavin O’Connor as the director and Bill Dubuque as the scriptwriter have done an excellent job in the pacing, the interweaving and in the series of climatic scenes.
This is not a normal review – most of mine are not anyway. But in this one, I never discussed Robert C. Treveiler as the father who misleadingly comes across initially as a villain, Anna Kendrick as the naïve and eventually love-struck Dana in the accounting department of the robotics firm, but in her own way, also a savant, Cynthia Addai-Robinson as Marybeth Medina, assistant treasury agent to Kay, Jon Bernthal as the assassin or John Lithgow as the head of the robotics company who are all individually excellent. The robotics voice on the cell phone is a particularly nice ironic touch. This is a movie about a puzzle solver that requires all members of the audience to become puzzle solvers, but at a much simpler level.
With the help of Alex Zisman