Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Accountant (Warner Bros., Electric City Entertainment, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” movie last night was The Accountant, one of the two Blu-Ray discs I bought at my last Vons run along with Deepwater Horizon — and as much a pleasant surprise as Deepwater Horizon had been a deep (pardon the pun) disappointment. The blurb on the box made it seem like a knockoff of John Grisham’s The Firm, only with accountants instead of lawyers as the members of a secretly Mob-controlled service firm — but it turned out to be considerably richer and deeper than that, and an appropriate choice for the first movie we’ve watched under TrumpAmerica. Indeed, The Accountant actually has a direct connection to the Trump administration; Steven Mnuchin, who went from working for Goldman Sachs to running a hedge fund that, among other things, funded several movies, is Trump’s appointee for Secretary of the Treasury. That’s a surprise given the very jaundiced view of capitalism presented in this film! Directed by Gavin O’Connor from a script by Bill Dubuque (itself a good sign, given my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers), The Accountant begins with a shot of a troubled kid (Seth Lee) and his relatively more normal brother (Jake Presley) in the office of a neurologist (Jason Davis) who says he doesn’t want to assign labels, though the child we see is definitely autistic. This scene takes place in 1989 and the gist is that the neurologist wants the boy to live at his center, but the parents don’t want that because dad is in the Army and gets moved around a lot, and they want to keep both their sons with them wherever they happen to be. Then the film flashes forward to the present, with Internal Revenue Service agent Ray King (J. K. Simmons, who reminded me a lot of Dann Florek’s performance as Captain Donald Craigin in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) summoning one of his analysts, Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), to his office to ask why she’s never sought a promotion to agent herself. He already knows the reason why: she was involved in the drug scene in her teens and committed attempted murder at 17, then served her time, then cleaned up her act and applied for the IRS — but she put on her application that she had no criminal record, and that itself is a felony.

With that hanging over her head, he’s able to order her to take on the high-risk assignment of locating “The Accountant,” a mystery man who travels all over the world giving accounting services to the Mafia, drug cartels and the like. As King explains, “Say you’re the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. Now the cartels count their money in eighteen-wheelers. But one sunny Mexican day, your in-house money scrubber comes to you and says you’re $30 million light. Who can you trust to do the forensic accounting to track your stolen cash? Deloitte & Touche? H & R Block?” The mystery accountant uses the name “Christian Wolff” — one of a series of aliases he’s taken from the names of famous mathematicians (including Lewis Carroll, for whom math was his day job even though today he’s most famous for writing Alice in Wonderland) — and of course he’s a) played by the film’s star, Ben Affleck, and b) he’s the grown-up version of the autistic kid we saw in the prologue, and in case we forget that O’Connor and Dubuque give us a few flashbacks to remind us. While all this is going on, another mystery man is holding up people in finance and ordering them at gunpoint not to make certain sorts of stock trades — in one sequence he sticks up someone in his car in his parking lot and tells him he’ll be back to kill him unless he stops trading certain stocks short — “and I regularly read the [Wall Street] Journal, so I’ll know!,” is his parting line. At the suggestion of his handler, whom we don’t see and only hear as a British-accented phone voice, Christian decides to take a quasi-legitimate job for a change with a company called Living Robotics. A junior accountant at this firm, Dana Cummings (played by Anna Kendrick, who’s been criticized but I though she was wonderful!), has spotted missing funds in the company’s accounts and the company hires Christian to trace the shortages — only it turns out Christian has done his job too well: he traces them to the chief financial officer as well as the CEO, who are looting the company in preparation for its IPO. The Accountant has its flaws; Christian is portrayed not only as a high-functioning autistic accountant but also as an action hero on the level of James Bond or Jason Bourne — at one point he massacred nine members of the Gambino crime family out of a personal vendetta, and at the end he takes on the corrupt CEO of Living Robotics and manages to wipe out the guy’s entire security detail even though there are about nine of them and they’re as well armed as he is. The only one he spares is the head of the guy’s security, Brax (Jon Bernthal), who [spoiler alert!] turns out to be Christian’s long-lost younger brother.

Along the way Christian and Dana, who’s pretty clearly also a high-functioning autistic, drift into an affair and he lets Dana into his sanctum sanctorum, a trailer in which he keeps his most precious possessions, including original paintings by Renoir and Pollock and a first issue of Action Comics which he’s received as in-kind payments from members of his criminal clientele. The Accountant is a slow-moving thriller, more coherent than the 1997 Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson (who was also the first star considered for this film too) but somewhat reminiscent of it, but it’s a good deal better as a film; it maintains audience interest and is a great showcase role for Affleck, who has one of the most wretched list of credits of anyone with a major-star reputation (whatever possessed him to agree to play Jack Dupree in the atrocious 2007 “comedy” Smokin’ Aces, or Batman?) but every so often takes a role that convinces us he’s really a great actor. He did it under Allan Coulter’s direction in the 2006 film Hollywoodland (in which he superbly portrayed George Reeves, the actor who played Superman in the 1950’s TV series — one “trivia” contributor argues that this makes Affleck the only actor who’s played both Superman and Batman, but that really seems like stretching a point to me) and he’s done it again here under O’Connor’s direction. (According to O’Connor is scheduled to direct the next film Affleck and his filmmaking partner Matt Damon co-star in, Father-Daughter Time.) Christian is one of the most multidimensional characters ever put on screen, working for criminals but also donating generous chunks of his ill-gotten gains to the research center where he was diagnosed back in 1989 (and the final scene shows the clinic admitting a new boy and we learn that the dispatcher who gave Christian his orders is actually a long-term adult patient there), and he’s likable enough we root for him and Dana to stay together (even though they don’t — the last we see of Christian is him hooking up his trailer to a truck and driving off for parts unknown) — and Affleck plays him brilliantly, treading the thin edge of audience sympathy without making him so likable we can’t believe he’d do what the script tells us he’s done.

Though I think writer Dubuque went a bit too far in making Christian a super-action hero in addition to all his other aspects, otherwise The Accountant is that rarity: a modern movie that has the best aspects of the classics while still taking advantage of the greater freedom and honesty with which certain aspects of life, especially sexual ones, can be treated on the modern screen. (Having said that, I still give brownie points to O’Connor and Dubuque for allowing us to take the sexual relationship between Christian and Dana at face value and not showing Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick slobbering over each other.) The Accountant is a compelling thriller with a surprisingly cynical attitude towards capitalism, especially given that it was not only produced at the dawn of the Trump era but actually was co-produced by one of his Cabinet appointees, and I especially liked the scene in which Living Robotics’ corrupt CEO Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow, marvelous as usual) goes all Ayn Rand on us and tries to convince Christian he should be let alone because he’s a capitalist superman who’s creating so much value and worth in the world. “I’m fond of Dana. But I restore lives, not Dana! Me! Men, women, children, I give them hope, make them whole. Do you even know what that’s like?” Blackburn says — and both to eliminate him and to shut him up, Christian calmly drills a shot to his chest, killing him instantly. Take that, Howard Roark, Hank Rearden and John Galt!!!