It’s such a rarity for Hollywood to create an original adult drama – a movie that isn’t based on a bestselling novel or biography, or a ripped-from-the-headlines news event – that “The Accountant” deserves points for that alone. This by turns engrossing and viscerally violent thriller has a lot going for it, even when its contrivances collapse in on themselves in an unconvincing heap.
Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff, a certified public accountant who works in a nondescript office in a strip mall just outside Chicago. His face an Easter Island mask of hooded eyes, his mouth stretched into an attenuated grimace, Chris doesn’t go out of his way to deliver dispassionate, sometimes brutally honest advice to his clients. He’s on the autism spectrum, a condition he’s learned to manage at the hands of his martinet of a father, whose tough-love techniques are revisited in a series of flashbacks that punctuate “The Accountant” as clues to Chris’ complicated identity.
That strip mall turns out to be a ruse, a facade designed to misdirect the authorities – especially the federal government – from Chris’s chief vocation and calling in life, which is helping criminals clean up their books and discover expensive leaks. When a Treasury Department official played by J.K. Simmons resolves to run Chris to ground, a cat-and-mouse game ensues that will eventually involve a plucky young finance executive (Anna Kendrick), a brilliant robotics entrepreneur (John Lithgow) and a ruthless hit man (Jon Bernthal) whose precise motives remain murky until the film’s climactic, preposterously staged shootout.
As a socially awkward math savant with superhuman aim and a penchant for mano-a-mano beatdowns, Chris often feels like a buttoned-down version of Affleck’s Batman character: During the pulpiest sequences of “The Accountant,” he seems to have been concocted as the thinking person’s superhero. When he’s not dispatching bad guys with perfect shots or bursting through apartment doors to save the day or looking placidly at home in the midst of gunfire and carnage, Chris is writing mathematical formulas, “A Beautiful Mind” style, on the glass walls of his latest client. Who would doubt that this damaged, diffident hunk of brainpower would make Kendrick’s prim good girl swoon?
What saves Chris from being too adorably withholding – and lethally competent – to be true is the humor that pervades “The Accountant.” The script, by Bill Dubuque (“The Judge”), allows for sharp, sudden moments of unexpected wit, usually as a result of Chris’ own deadpan delivery. Directed with swift, unfussy straightforwardness by Gavin O’Connor, “The Accountant” is just enigmatic enough to keep the audience guessing until an unfortunate scene, late in the film, when a character delivers an exposition-heavy monologue explaining (nearly) everything while a re-enactment unspools on screen.
That, and a lingering question about how and when Chris had the time to get to know one of the film’s most elusive characters, are the only distracting flaws in a movie that otherwise makes good on its intriguing premise with modest smarts, well-timed laughs and pummeling action. (Admittedly, “Arrested Development” fans will be momentarily disoriented by the sight of Jeffrey Tambor in prison fatigues. Suffice it to say that the banana stand has nothing to do with his character’s arc.)
True to the profession it sets out to glamorize, “The Accountant” takes advantage of its share of creative loopholes – and manages to break even in the process.
Two and one-half starts. Rated R. Contains strong violence and profanity. 128 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.