If the default summer blockbuster is a “comic book” movie, then The Accountant is an “airport paperback” movie.
Although The Accountant is based upon an original idea by screenwriter Bill Dubuque, it feels very much like something adapted from some pulpy thriller. It has all the ingredients. Like so many John Gresham best sellers, it has a title comprised of a noun used as the definitive article. It has a pithy high concept that can be summarised in a nice tagline. It is packed full of ridiculous twists. It has a plot that is largely just something on which it can hang all manner of goofy ideas. It even has a fondness for absurd (and contrived) exposition delivered via monologue.
This is both the best and the worst thing about The Accountant. By just about any measure, The Accountant is a ridiculous film with a fairly thin concept and with a variety of twists that will seem inevitable to any genre-savvy observer. However, there is something quite enjoyable in watching The Accountant bounce between these crazy twists. The Accountant works best when it embraces its pulpier attributes, rolling with each crazy development after the last and never stopping to catch its breath.
The Accountant is a very weird and dysfunctional film, but that dysfunction becomes part of the charm. Much like those page-turners picked up to help pass long flights, it is unlikely that much of The Accountant will remain with audiences after the credits roll. However, there is still some fun to be had.
It is not a spoiler to reveal that The Accountant comes with twists. The film very blatantly and very heavily choreographs this from the outset. The opening scene is taken out of context from the final act of the movie, featuring one character stalking another through an old building. The audience has no context for any of this, but the film very deliberately and very definitely conceals the identities of the characters involved; there are lots of tight cuts and silhouette shots. It is very literally a teaser, as if begging the audience to solve the riddle.
From that teaser, the film cuts back to 1988. It joins the eponymous character as a young child suffering with a neurological condition. The film is relatively vague about what that condition is. “We don’t like to use labels,” the owner of the facility claims, although later the character acknowledges he has a “high-functioning” version of autism. The young boy is introduced putting together a jigsaw puzzle, face down on a glass table. In a way, this is a great metaphor for the film as a whole. It doesn’t matter what the puzzle looks like. It’s just important that it fit together.
The Accountant is quite clearly sending a signal to the audience. The film wants to be seen as a puzzle box, a riddle waiting to be solved. It is that jigsaw puzzle, with the viewers watching the pieces fall into place. However, much like the young boy assembling the jigsaw puzzle, the film does not care about the picture being formed. After all, most of the twists in The Accountant vary between being asinine and being contrived; most of the bigger twists can be guessed, and most of the smaller ones are only foreshadowed with the smallest of clues entirely out of context.
This should be infuriating. However, just as there is something quite compelling in watching that young boy piece together an upside down jigsaw, there is something strangely exciting about watching The Accountant pull itself together. The Accountant is best approached in that light, the audience openly invited to play their own surreal version of Cluedo with the pieces in play. “What if [one character] is actually [another character]?” Just as the film presents its eponymous characters with mountains of data, it presents the audience with lots of pieces to play.
The Accountant feels a lot like those old airport thrillers, the kind of novels that writers like John Gresham or Tom Clancy would crank out. As much fun as it is to acknowledge the limitations of the genre, there is a certain charm to those cheeky pulpy thrillers. The Accountant adheres to a lot of the expectations of those films, many of its flaws feeling almost like features. The film has no discernible morality. The actual story underpinning the movie is very thin, providing more of a framework to support characters that feel more like concepts. The logic is… questionable.
What story elements exist are as delightfully absurd as any comic book origin story, but couched in terms that are rooted in the paperback thriller template. The eponymous character might as well be a superhero, with incredible reflexes and knowledge of countless combat techniques. At times, it feels almost like Ben Affleck is simply tweaking his Batman performance. However, while this character also travelled the world to learn his skills, the back story is contextualised within the framework of classified and covert military operations to make it seem more grounded.
Even the structure feels imported from those books. The Accountant can be clearly broken down into chapters. Characters appear and disappear from the film depending on its particular need at a given moment. At one point towards the climax of the film, two characters stop and enjoy an extended exposition-driven conversation that lays out a lot of the motivations and back story to this point. There is even a healthy amount of purple prose. “Those men had taken something,” reflects one official of some massacred mobsters. “Something that could not be made whole.”
Of course, there are limits to all of this. There is an undeniable lightness to The Accountant, a sense that there is precious little lurking beneath the surface in need of exploration. The movie has the luxury of a great cast, especially Ben Affleck and Jon Bernthal, who do a lot to sell the premise. There is something to be said for the way that Ben Affleck and director Gavin O’Connor try to make accounting look exciting through a combination of montage, dynamic camera work and nervous tics.
At the same time, the movie largely wastes supporting performers like J.K Simmons, Jean Smart, John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor. The biggest twists can be seen coming miles away, and the smaller twists don’t really matter enough to have an impact. The Accountant is a sleek film that is certainly entertaining if approached in the right frame of mind, but it feels just as shallow as the pulpy airport paperbacks that it so lovingly evokes. In a way, this is a testament to the accuracy of its translation of those trashy tropes.
The Accountant is not a bad film. It has its own thrills on its own terms. However, it lacks the nuance or sophistication necessary to craft a truly superior thriller. Given the prevalence of multimedia entertainment on modern long-distance flights, it could be argued that The Accountant represents the perfect upgrade of an old travelling standard. It seems perfect for watching on those long late-night flights, even if the audience seem unlikely to remember much after they land.