Ben Af­fleck’s ‘The Ac­coun­tant’ of­fers a dif­fer­ent kind of su­per­hero

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FEATURES - By Bob Strauss South­ern Cal­i­for­nia News Group

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.”

PHOTO BY CHUCK ZLOTNICK — WARNER BROS.

From left, direc­tor Gavin O’Con­nor and Ben Af­fleck on the set of the film “The Ac­coun­tant.”

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