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.
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.
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.
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.