Ben Affleck’s ‘The Accountant’ offers a different kind of superhero
There’s a good chance “The Accountant” is not the movie that you think it’s going to be.
As advertised, it is a crime thriller in which Ben Affleck plays an autistic numbers wiz named Christian Wolff who cooks books for an international rogues gallery of dangerous characters. And shoots a lot of guns.
What you may not expect from Bill Dubuque’s original script is a complex, time-jumping puzzle mystery, or a precision actionspectacular that introduces the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat to Hollywood, or a multifaceted character study with half a dozen meaty roles, or a very violent film that makes good use of subtle laughs.
Or this: “Our hope is that the people in that community, on the spectrum of autism, like the movie and like that it’s a superhero story about them,” Affleck says.
“I read the script and thought it was one of the most freshly conceived, original pieces of storytelling that I’d maybe ever read, with a character that was unlike anything that I’d ever seen as a protagonist in a film,” adds “Accountant’s” director Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle,” “Warrior”).
Wolff’s formidable set of skills, along with his hardcore devotion to order and morality, are gradually explained in flashbacks: how his military father (Rob Trevelier) trained both of his boys in protecting themselves and loyalty, which to him was more important than understanding his eldest son’s condition; how a sympathetic fellow math genius (“Transparent’s” Jeffrey Tambor) taught Chris the ins and outs of underworld accounting in prison; and even why the retiring head of the Treasury Department’s Crime Enforcement Division, Ray King (J.K. Simmons), has personal reasons for tracking Chris down.
Anna Kendrick, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow, Cynthia Addai-Robinson and Jean Smart also work rich characterizations. But it’s Affleck’s remarkably controlled and efficient performance that, counterintuitively, draws most of the movie’s attention. It was as carefully built as one of Wolff’s complicated audits.
“It’s a real contradiction, because one thinks of autism as limiting in various ways, particularly in terms of social interactions and expressiveness,” explains Affleck, who with O’Connor met autism experts and numerous people on the spectrum before production. “It’s not that people on the spectrum aren’t expressive, but there can be some impairment of understanding social norms and that kind of thing. So the challenge was to communicate how he was feeling in different ways. It wasn’t going to be he says what he thinks and then you get a sense of him and judge him that way.
“We had to do it by other means. And the people that I researched and spent time with, I got a very clear sense of what they were thinking, what they were feeling, what their needs were because of the way they expressed themselves verbally, nonverbally, physically, things that they did and didn’t say. It created an opportunity to make an interesting character that’s rooted in something different than we see every day in movies.”
Getting that across with generally minimal means in front of the camera was a whole other challenge.
“I’m very verbal, y’know,” Affleck acknowledges. “I like to talk and, sometimes, I suppose I move my hands a lot, too. But I wasn’t able to rely on that so much. That was a challenge and it was really fun to rely on other means of expression. We are so expressive in so many different ways, we just don’t realize it.”
And when it’s time to fight, Wolff naturally goes at it in the most mathematically calculated way he can think of to use his entire body and whatever blades and ballistics he’s brought along for the job. Pencak Silat, which is about weaponizing the entire human form and anything it can throw, was the perfect discipline for this. Although cineastes and action fans were wowed by the martial art’s cinematic awesomeness when they watched “The Raid” movies out of Indonesia, Affleck was unfamiliar with the form and, of course, trained assiduously at it before and during production.
The actor may be Warner Bros.’ current screen Batman, but “The Accountant” isn’t that kind of superhero movie.
“Gavin was very concerned about the action being real and good,” Affleck notes. “So training was as much a part of this as it was for the Batman [v Superman] movie; even more so, because it’s a lot harder for a stuntman to do your stunt when you’re not wearing a mask. I had to really be on top of my game and work hard with some really great professionals who really live this stuff and educated me about this fighting style.”
Yes, Affleck was asked if he thought Chris Wolff could beat Bruce Wayne in a fight.
“I thought about beating Jason Bourne!” Affleck cracks, referencing his lifelong friend Matt Damon’s signature super-but-not-asuperhero movie character.
But what about getting Dubuque, whose “Accountant” script works a lot like a good comic book movie’s should, to write a screenplay for the DC Extended Universe? Affleck, after all, is now an executive producer of Warner’s comic book franchise. His Caped Crusader will put the band together in next year’s “Justice League” movie, and he’s writing and will direct and star in what he revealed last week may or may not be called “The Batman.”
Affleck and Damon won Oscars for their own math savant script, “Good Will Hunting,” and he says he’s taking his time to get “The Batman’s” script “to a place where we can be confident it will make a good movie. I’m not going to go in and do that character and that genre without being 100 percent satisfied that I have a shot at doing something that I’m proud of.”
Yay. But the DCEU sure could use more screenplays crafted like “The Accountant’s.”
“I would love for Bill to write anything!” Affleck enthuses. “He’s very hot as a writer right now. He’s obviously very gifted and he’s got a fresh, original voice and a lot of original ideas. I’d love to work on something else he wrote, for sure. And I think that he’d be great in the comic [book movie] arena.”
From left, director Gavin O’Connor and Ben Affleck on the set of the film “The Accountant.”