Early in The Accountant, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) sits at a desk in his bare office, which itself sits inside a barren strip mall somewhere in a suburb of Chicago. He obsessively taps his fingers as he ponders how to exploit the tax code for the benefit of two clients, who are cash-strapped as they approach retirement. They’re sitting across from him, but he doesn’t make eye contact. That is just the beginning of the awkwardness.
His voice shows no emotion or empathy as he inquires as to whether the woman might sell homemade versions of the necklace she’s wearing — he doesn’t much care for the necklace, aesthetically, but it could prove useful in a scheme he has cooking up. It could give them an excuse to claim a home office, while their car could be considered be a work vehicle. The pair eventually leave, marveling at their newfound tax deductions. Wolff barely cracks a smile. It’s a clever introduction to the fact that Affleck’s character has autism, a disorder that isn’t normally addressed in a Hollywood film with big brand name stars. Unfortunately, the films initially astute handling of the disorder stops there.
Wolff’s seemingly rote everyday routine is compounded by a lack of social skills and a difficulty in expressing outward emotion. He has a sensitivity to light and sound, and handles his anxiety by “stimming,” or self-stimulating, with a rolling pin. He’s been able to wrangle these traits that could have stopped him from growing into a functioning adult into something that has made him a prosperous business owner and member of society. But here’s the cynical twist: That small-town accounting business is all just a front to cook the books for some of the world’s most notorious criminal organizations, and he himself brutally murders people on the regular.
And yet, as Laurie Stephens, a liaison on the film and director of clinical services for Education Spectrum told USA Today, “There’s absolutely no relationship between violence like this and having an autism spectrum disorder or Asperger’s.”
It is this narrative absurdity that makes the movie’s depiction of autism so troublesome. What starts out seeming like a truthful depiction of spectrum disorders gives way to the realization that the movie is merely using it as a foundation for something much more overwrought. Screenwriter Bill Dubuque’s haphazard script is too busy juggling several genres (workplace comedy, serious drama, action film) that its nuanced look at Wolff’s autism quickly devolves into the kind of glib savant stereotype that has plagued the autism community since Rain Man.
Take, for instance, the narrative beat that gets the characters into the whole action movie mess in the first place. Like most of everything in this movie it starts off as something inconsequential and builds to a wildly illogical end.
Wolff’s intellect gets him hired to audit a robotics company’s books after a discrepancy is discovered by a plucky young accountant named Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick). In a scene ripped right from A Beautiful Mind, Wolff scribbles decades worth of amounts on the office’s walls (geniuses always write on the walls to show us they’re geniuses) and finds the incorrect amount. The incongruous pair realizes they can find common ground and possibly eventually even spark a romance.
This would be all fine and good and constructive if it continued down the romantic drama route, especially for what it means for Affleck’s high-functioning autistic character. But instead we find that the robotics company, headed by a shady tech magnate (John Lithgow), is embroiled in the same seedy international crime syndicates as Wolff. How convenient. Forget all about that stuff dealing with mental conditions and cue the gunfire and explosions.
The simple message — that just because someone has autism doesn’t mean they’re incapable — could have been effective if the narrative implications that follow didn’t outright ruin that notion, or, even worse, think that it’s a better way of portraying those ideas. Wolff is obviously portrayed as heroic, which is great, and the filmmakers seem to be trying to use the character to suggest that similar people can also rise above their mental disabilities. But at some point the argument becomes complicated due to high-powered rifles and international espionage.
Seen in flashbacks, Wolff’s abusive father who served in military intelligence hires a group of martial arts masters to train his son in different forms of hand-to-hand combat. The proud dad is responsible for the tactical training. The one thing that made Christian stand such grueling training is his autism. Motivation is one thing, taking advantage of autism is another.
In what is truly the most problematic detail in the movie, (spoilers) a neurologist that runs a school for kids with mental disorders that Wolff attended as a child tells a new couple that their son could grow up to be special as well, positing some kind of X-Men-like academy that preps new generations of autistic super-agents.
Anything truly progressive the movie tried to convey about the disorder is meaningless, because the conclusion you draw from it is that autism is what helped him and others like him to become superhuman killing machines. When asked about this, Danny Raede, CEO of Asperger’s Experts, a company that seeks to educate and encourage information about the developmental disorder, told Inverse that “Autism can be a superpower, but like anything, it has its strengths and weaknesses.”
For their part, director Gavin O’Connor and Affleck tried to at least portray autism itself in a most truthful light. “I’m terrified … I’m honestly terrified,” O’Connor told Empire Magazine, “because we wanted to make sure we got this right.” As for Affleck, he told the Chicago Sun Times, “I met with a lot of people and did a lot of research and read a lot of material so that I could deliver a portrayal that was as realistic and plausible as possible.”
As setting standards goes, The Accountant is a confusing start. Hollywood films have a long, long way to go before they can include autism or other disorders in an honest way without taking advantage of them as some kind of narrative crutch. Still, it’s a start.