People Are Scared of What’s Different & Other Revelations From The Accountant

The following will contain comprehensive spoilers of the new film The Accountant which opened today.

I am going to start with a brief synopsis of the film, followed by a review based solely on the plot. Then I will dig deeper into the portrayal of disability (specifically Autism but not exclusively). Bare with me the plot is convoluted.

Synopsis

The film is about Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) an Autistic mathematical savant who works as a forensic accountant for organized crime. Some of the promotional material for the film also describes him as either a hitman or assassin. This is less clear in the film though he is certainly very skilled at multiple forms of violence. He’s an unbeatable sniper, his hand to hand combat skills are unparalleled etc (you get the point).

When Wolff realizes that his less legal accounting activities have drawn law enforcement attention, he decides to let heat wear off while he takes more conventional legal accounting work.

He is hired to determine the source of millions of dollars which have gone missing from a robotic prosthetics company. He is paired with Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) the in house accountant who discovered the financial discrepancy.

As Wolff comes closer to discovering the source of the financial anomaly, the company’s CFO is murdered by being forced to overdose on insulin. It is seen as a suicide and the company’s president Lamar Black (John Lithgow) fires Wolff saying that the CFO’s suicide was an admission guilt.

Wolff can’t let it go. He can’t stand unfinished puzzles. He keeps digging and concludes that more is going on. His suspects keep turning up dead and he and dana Cummings are eventually targeted for assassination.

Wolff Thwarts these assassination attempts and takes Dana somewhere safe before returning to get to the bottom of the fraud.

In the meantime law enforcement is closing in and the film is interspersed with flashbacks of Wolff’s childhood. His father refusing conventional treatment in favour of immersive martial arts training for Wolff and his brother.

Wolff eventually determines that Lamar Black is behind the whole scheme and goes after him. Black is protected by his hired assassin & various goons. Wolff makes short work of the goons, realizes that the assassin is his brother (hey, I warned you that the spoilers would be comprehensive), they have a half-hearted sibling fight, reconcile and Wolff kills Black.

Review

There is to much going on in the movie. It would be better is the law enforcement angle had been cut altogether. It seems to be there only for the sole purpose of giving an excuse for unnecessary exposition and to set up the possibility of a sequel.

It turns out that the lead agent knew who Wolff was all along but set the junior agent on him anyway so that she could see how he functioned and realize that he’s really a criminal with a heart of gold (he’s been tipping the older agent off on some of his employers more nefarious dealings). The older agent is retiring and was the younger agent to continue taking the tips (she does).

Without that the movie would just be a cat and mouse plot, Wolff chases Black’s assassin who in turn chases Wolff right back.

The law enforcement angle just adds a dog into the mix, a dog that really just wants to play with the cat anyway so it’s kind of redundant.

The action sequences are underwhelming. Mostly because Wolff is set up to be such a good fighter that they lack any tension. There is no moment where you genuinely think he might be in mortal peril.

I also managed to figure out the twist before the reveal. That the opposing assassin was his brother so I wasn’t remotely surprised by the outcome.

So, from a purely plot based review it was convoluted and predictable.

Portrayal of Autism & other Disability References

The movie couldn’t really figure out if it wanted to have progressive message of accommodation and inclusion or an Autistic superhero who overcame his Autism through brute force. For some reason they tried to do both which was mostly just confusing.

The film opens with Christian Wolff as a child (in the 1980s). The family is visiting a treatment centre for children with developmental disabilities. Christian is sitting at a table doing a puzzle at extraordinary speed. His parents are talking to the proprietor  who refuses to diagnose Christian because “I don’t like labels”. He recommends leaving Christian there for the summer so that he can learn to adapt in an environment designed to accommodate his needs.

Aside from the cringe worthy remark about not liking labels labels this is actually pretty decent. Particularly if you consider it was supposed to have happened in the 1980s. The emphasis was absolutely on Christian’s comfort and he made a point of saying that stimming ( a common self-soothing technique involving repetitive motion) was completely normal and nothing to worry about.

Meanwhile, Christian has misplaced the final piece of his puzzle and begins to have a meltdown (it’s a common theme throughout the movie that he doesn’t like not being able to finish things). Another child locates the piece for him and the camera pans to an overhead shot of the completed puzzle. It is completely grey. It is the first visual indication that Christian is really good at puzzles.

Christian’s father interprets accommodation as coddling and determines that if over stimulation is stressful for Christian than the best treatment is to subject him to as much over stimulation as possible (don’t do this, no seriously don’t do this).

So instead of giving Christian individualized care that recognized both his needs and his humanity, Christian’s father made him live a transient existence (he tells Dana that they moved over 30 times in 17 years) full of martial arts training. Even the martial arts masters think the father was taking it overboard but he just says they’re my kids (Christian’s brother was subjected to this too) I’ll decide when they’ve had enough.

This approach is infuriating for  several reasons. Not least of all that it’s actually abuse. There’s also the fact that a lot of harmful things have been done to disabled children because parents exert total dominion over their children (even if they’re not having martial arts masters pummel their children for hours). The most damaging thing of all though is that in the movie, this treatment works (again, seriously don’t do this).

Not only does christian grow up to be an unbeatable fighter, he also regularly overstimulates himself with audio and visual input. He turns off the lights, turns on loud music which is clearly stylistically different from the music that he likes while also using a strobe light.

The message appears to be that overcoming the issue beats “coddling” and yet the final scene is back at that treatment centre. That same proprietor is talking to parents. He no linger shies away from the word Autism and continues to advocate for individualized care and not placing unnecessary restrictions or expectations on an Autistic child.

Basically, it’s like the opening and closing scenes should be on a different movie and very likely a better movie. It’s like the writer really wanted a “and the moral of the story is…” ending but the content of the film simply does not lead to the final scene. In fact it utterly contradicts it. So any good that might come from what is really set up as preachy exposition is hollow because nothing that is said is modeled in the film. The entire body of the film actually serves as an active rebuttal. The film mostly just tells you that you can mold an Autistic child’s behaviour through violent regimented force.

Christian Wolff’s character is the ultimate supercrip. He’s only Autistic in the sense that he maintains a number of physical behaviours of a fake Hollywood Autistic. He has the movie monotone that is almost universally present in fictional portrayals of Autism but never present in any of the many real life Autistic people that I know. His only stimming is a pretty innocuous tapping of his fingers. He does have an eating ritual in which he must blow on his fingers before commencing. These things are really just an actor trying to physically act something that you can’t actually see and the effect falls pretty flat.

The two big stereotypes are that he’s socially awkward–the movie even includes an “I’m Autistic and have difficulty connecting with others but totally want to” speech–and he is of course a mathematical savant. He and pretty much every other movie and TV Autistic are sitting over there with their ridiculous math skills and I’m sitting over here in the social sciences cringing at my pretty solid D- high school math grades (I got a B in math once but it was an anomaly) and happily never taking math ever again.

Why does my sad history with math matter? Because even in the Autistic population savants are rare and I’m willing to bet my story is more common than the math geniuses we Autistics inevitably become when we end up on screen.

When I wrote about my concerns on how the film was being promoted, I mentioned my frustration with Ben Affleck’s excitement over having a role where his character didn’t get the girl. Admittedly the chemistry was lacking between Affleck and Kendrick but it confirmed my fear that the romance would be aborted as a direct result of Christian’s Autism. He decides to leave her right after a flashback in which his father forces him to use his exceptional fighting skills to beat some bullies who had broken his glasses. His father told him that he was being bullied because he was different and that difference always becomes frightening. To which the logical solution is to prove to them just how scary you can actually be and beat the ever loving shit out of them or something, I guess.

It is not his capacity for violence that makes him leave Dana but his father’s words that people always come to fear what is different ringing in his head.

This is just one more in a long line of movies dealing with disability where the character’s sexuality is acknowledged but ultimately unsatisfied as a direct result of their disability. So Fuck That.

It’s hard to determine how he feels about killing people. He does it so dispassionately that he appears unfeeling and yet he supposedly has a very strong though poorly defined moral code. Is it that he only kills bullies? or criminals? I mean he’s technically a criminal so I’m confused. All I know is that you know that he’s never going to kill any of the people that the film has set you up to like. So that nice elderly couple who hired him to do his taxes. They’re safe even though they watch him kill at least two people. So there are people that he’s clearly fond of and willing to protect but beyond that all bets are off, there’s no restraint or remorse until it comes to fighting with his brother. He also doesn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that his brother is a mercenary commanding assassin who tried to kill him and the girl he has a crush on? is kind of fond of? (I really don’t know).

I know movie ethics are different than real world ethics but this takes it a bit far.

Interestingly, the film moves somewhat beyond Autism with the villain. No, thankfully Lamar Black is not disabled but his company makes robotic prosthetics. So in the climactic scene when Christian faces Lamar, Lamar gives a “I did the crime for the greater good speech” pointing out all the people who are helped by his technology. While he’s far from the first villain to try the “for the greater good” defense, there was something satisfying in Christian not falling for it. People being portrayed as saints for being nice to disabled people is something of an insidious real world trend.

Conclusions

So, I clearly think this movie is objectively bad (a lot of critics agree with me), so why does any of this matter.

Even if this movie completely bombs at the box office (it’s to early to tell) this film did something different, not in its content but in how it marketed the film. Disabled people have become much more vocal about calling out Hollywood for harmful stereotypes and demanding better stories and more meaningful representation.

The marketing of this film was an obvious response to that. They emphasized how much research went into the role, they emphasized how honest it was. They spent a lot of time saying that the story was original and that the portrayal was honest. This authenticity trolling was not only inaccurate but it shows that instead of working to better incorporate disabled community into the film industry that they would rather build discrediting it as a part of the the promotion process.

The fact that they did this with an action movie which would normally be defended on the grounds of it’s general unbelievability –hey shouldn’t the protagonist have died seven times already?–actually co-opted a lot of activist language to try and preemptively absolve it  from accusations of stereotyping. Then they went on their merry way and stereotyped & regurgitated hackneyed story lines to their hearts content.

And that is why it is important to care about how bad the portrayal of Autism is in this movie even though the movie isn’t even good.

 

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5 responses to “People Are Scared of What’s Different & Other Revelations From The Accountant

  1. “He has the movie monotone that is almost universally present in fictional portrayals of Autism but never present in any of the many real life Autistic people that I know.”

    Well, I have a monotone voice and given how much negativity I’ve received for this fact, it can be very reassuring and validating for me to see autistic characters with monotone voices. That being said, this movie does sound terrible and I wish it didn’t exist. And I do realize that we need to have as many varied portrayals of autistic people as possible, including those that don’t speak with monotone voices. But… I don’t think portraying autistic characters with monotone voices is in and of itself unrealistic. It’s just unrealistic to act as if this is what all autistic people are like. Although maybe that’s exactly what you’re saying — I have trouble with reading comprehension, so I wasn’t sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just to clarify as I was unclear. I wasn’t trying to say that Autistic people are never monotone but that default way that neurotypical actors try and mimic it does not match any reality that I know and yet it is far to often exactly the same across fictional portrayals of Autism.

      Like

  2. Greetings! I agree with many of your points, but I have a more positive feeling about this film. It is very flawed. It has problems in representation. It does not employ autistic actors. It involves an autistic assassin. It involves math skills.

    But this movie also does some things that I find very positive. Oh, SPOILERS BELOW!

    For one, I like the way this film actually incorporates the idea of autistic community. We see relationships between autistic people, networking and achieving things. The second plot twist – that the non-verbal, stimming woman we see at the end is, via her computer, the voice that has been guiding affleck all along, was wonderful to me not because of what it was, but because it was predictable. I figured it out before it was revealed. It was actually built up beautifully in a way that shows this sense of community. She is the grown up girl that recognized the source of his distress with the puzzle. Then, we see parents of a newly-diagnosed kid obviously put off by the flapping non-verbal woman, but she again makes a connection with their son, who is otherwise kind of frightened and left out by them. The doctor smoothly dismisses their obvious worry and engineers a situation to leave the two autistics alone together. It’s not a major part of the plot, but it is beautiful context, and builds this fabric of community and capability. This non-verbal woman is first seen being feared and shunned by those parents… and the parents are dismissed while she is shown to be loving, powerful, perceptive – and the mastermind of the whole thing. In fact, in a number of places, we see the film deliberately raising and dismissing AS-style scare tactics and “autism mom” attitudes.

    Affleck’s father – it’s very complicated. It is abusive. I don’t think that’s unrealistic and I think the movie acknowledges that. But I also don’t think his message is so one-sidedly bad. Mind you this is on one viewing, so I may have missed things. But I think the doctor and therapy evolved between the scenes at the beginning (child affleck (christian, I know)) and adult-era. The father, in the early scenes, seemed to me to be rejecting the idea of teaching christian to “pass.” He basically asked if his son would ever achieve “indistinguishable” through the therapy, and when told no (nice!), he decided to take another route. Here our interpretations diverge, and I don’t say yours is wrong. But I understood it differently. From that point on, the father’s plan seemed to be “you’ll never be indistinguishable, so we’re going to give you the tools to fight to be who you are.” His message was to me one of acceptance, and especially self-acceptance. But very twisted. The father obviously had issues of his own and came from a brutal world. But I read the movie as also showing that he stayed when the mother didn’t, and that he was tender in his handling of a meltdown (which sent the mom running away). I am guessing here… but I read that as the moment when they changed from traditional therapy to superhero training. So, I think the father was a very complicated character, with plenty of problems and what sure looks like abuse, but also in something that I think will resonate (in the sense of being a fine that they have to navigate) with many parents, being coercive and controlling with the goal of teaching independence and self-respect. Comply with my desire for you to be non-compliant! I am not defending the way he did it, or saying the overall thing is good… I’m just saying there was nuance and (depressing) realism. That is, the movie is not making a statement of how it should be, but of how it was. I think the relationship of the brothers reflects (attempts to reflect?) the experience of children of abusive parents.

    I didn’t really like Affleck’s acting job, but I do think they tried. He was not monotonically monotone. He was brief and blunt and gruff in uncomfortable situations, but we did see him open up and show excitement when in his element. I think overall, the character was non-stereotypical in that he was driven by social ties – loyalty, compassion, concern as well as by a need to finish projects. I think they managed well to show a distinction between outward presentation and inner feelings. I don’t know that romance was ruled out… I thought the film left it in progress.

    Mainly, I was happy that autism was kind of unimportant to the plot. It really wasn’t essential, or used as a crutch. It was neither severely limiting nor the simplistic explanation of his abilities. It was just part of who he was. His superhero assassin skills were because of his father’s twisted ideas of childraising (and shared by his NT(?) brother). Aided by ability to hyperfocus. His accountant skills weren’t that astounding or savant-like (except for the speed) – again, it was really just focus, and drive to complete things. Dana identified the problem, and did a lot of the organizational work that let him be effective. She was a math nerd, too. So this in a way downplayed his difference from those around him…. blurred the lines between the autistic and NT rather than drawing sharp distinctions.

    I will think about your idea of the endcaps of the movie being at odds with the rest. I didn’t see it that way. I think the thread of Christian’s relationship with the girl/non-verbal woman/handler really held all that together, and I thought the idea of him out there fighting for the things that he cared about – whether his mentor, his sense of justice, Dana – was not out of line with the message of acceptance and self-determination that the doctor provided. I was initially ready to be totally upset when the first few minutes looked like an AS scare-tactic video, with meltdowns and screaming and such, but the movie stood it on its head promptly. Kinda like bait? I don’t know.

    I would think this was iffy as a movie about autism. And with the hype and advertising, I can see how the movie could be seen that way. I don’t think it was terrible that way, especially given the community aspect, but iffy. I think the hype hurts. But this was superhero/superspy movie with an autistic character, and if looked at that way, I think it was good, and in some ways a great step forward for the portrayal of autism in film. Not in the acting, but in the texture of the movie. In it not being a defining element. In the relationships and specifically autistic community. In the embracing of messages that originate in the actually autistic community, and in the deliberate dismissal of traditional parent-centered attitudes.

    It should be criticized; there were plenty of problems both in the representation of autism and in the plot/acting/etc. But overall I also think there was a lot to like.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very good assessment. Please note …..The father was a PsyOps officer in the Army. That is explained in the movie. It is also explained in the movie by the father that “the layers on the outside need to be peeled away to develop aggression” (in so many words). Focus, drive, intention, organization, tunnel vision, dedication to a cause, unyielding, stiff. Those are words that describe someone trained in this method, in an attempt to overcome developmental disability, but also make great use of those attributes to make a difference in the world. The song at the end helps to describe this.

      Liked by 1 person

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