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The Accountant wants to be a thriller about neurodiversity. Instead, it’s just stupid.

There’s a way to make a movie about autism, but this isn’t it.

Ben Affleck in The Accountant
Ben Affleck in The Accountant.
Warner Bros.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In July, I watched Independence Day: Resurgence in an Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco's Mission District. The shishito peppers were awesome; the movie, not so much. But its persistent badness was so blandly executed that I walked out and entirely forgot the movie until someone reminded me of it recently. ID:R didn't want to be smart, clever, or even particularly campy. All it wanted to do was recycle a formula that worked in 1996 and give the moviegoing public a few hours in an air-conditioned theater with some aliens and a newly bearded Bill Pullman.



The Accountant is also bad, but in a less forgettable way — and frankly, it probably could have benefited from some aliens. Directed by Gavin O'Connor (Warrior, Jane Got a Gun) and scripted by Bill Dubuque (The Judge), The Accountant wants to be a thriller, a shoot-’em-up, and a sensitive argument for neurodiversity all at once.

What it actually is is stupid.

As a shoot-'em-up, it almost works: The body count is high, and the kills are straight from a video game. Sometimes that’s thrilling, sure — but it’s anything but sensitive, and the flagrant disregard for the lives of characters played by extras is at odds with what the movie seems to be after.

Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff, who is both a brilliant accountant and basically a trained assassin, which as far as I can tell constitutes the plot of the film: people being shocked — shockedthat an accountant could be anything more than a big pocket-protecting nerd. (Wolff, for the record, does in fact wear a pocket protector.) I'm not sure if these people haven't heard of Spider-Man or watched TV or what the problem is. Who cares? This guy can shoot a gun really good!

Wolff is really good at his job (yes, there is an accounting montage, if that's what gets you to the movies), the movie’s explanation for which is that he's also living with high-functioning autism that makes him a numbers savant. The Accountant plays this as a sort of superpower, as well as comic relief when Wolff doesn’t know how to deal with other people. Ha, ha! Yes, the visible pain on his face sure is funny.

Ben Affleck stands in a boardroom in The Accountant
Ben Affleck in The Accountant.
Chuck Zlotnick / Warner Bros.

Because he and his brother grew up with an Army dad, and because Dad was concerned for little Christian’s future well-being, Wolff trained as a child with various Army specialists. A development specialist also wanted to help treat his autism, but Dad, being a Macho Army Guy, thought it would be better if Christian prepared for life in the real world by training to kill people at a level approaching Jason Bourne. Also by developing the habit, carried into adulthood, of spending 25 minutes a night in a self-generated Snoezelen room: flashing lights, blaring metal, a dowel to roll vigorously on his calf muscles, all of which conveniently makes for a good set piece.

Wolff did some time in jail (whether the stimuli were available to him there is not explored or explained). It’s not really clear why, but there he was, because The Accountant’s plot requires it. There, he met and learned about the mob from George Bluth — er, sorry, Francis Silverberg, played by Jeffrey Tambor in a drab prison jumpsuit — and it launched his career as an accountant for bad guys.

Ben Affleck and Jeffrey Tambor in The Accountant
Ben Affleck and Jeffrey Tambor in The Accountant.
Chuck Zlotnick / Warner Bros.

There are probably reasons for why he got involved; they don't really matter. The important point is that in the years since, Wolff’s shady dealings as a forensic accountant and money launderer have netted him, in addition to his sleek and dudely apartment, a tricked-out Airstream where he keeps thousands in various currencies, rare comics, a whole bunch of fancy weaponry, and some original paintings, like the Pollock casually hanging on the ceiling above his bed.

Wolff picks up some legitimate business to throw the Feds off his trail, uncooking the books for a robotics company, led by Lamar Black (John Lithgow, looking as if he doesn’t know why he's here either). Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) is working there as well, and when they discover a $61 billion discrepancy in the accounting, Wolff gets himself and her chased by some additional bad guys, which is when his mad gun skills come in handy.

Also there is FBI agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons) who wants to figure out Wolff’s deal but apparently cannot just give orders to his subordinate Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), and must instead blackmail her into it. (That subplot is particularly mystifying, neither thematically or narratively coherent.)

Perhaps this still sounds like a great movie. I would like to assure you that it is not. The audience at my screening laughed through the last half-hour of The Accountant, particularly in the spots where you’re obviously not supposed to be laughing. There’s a twist so groanworthy that it will call to mind another bad Ben Affleck movie from this year. John Lithgow is all of us, watching the action on closed-circuit TV with a sense of helpless despondency.

It’s not forgettably bad, though. And that might be enough to recommend it as a few hours of mindless entertainment on a Saturday night — were it not for one perplexing, troubling flaw.

Put simply, there’s no reason whatsoever for The Accountant to foreground Affleck’s character’s autism. Via voiceover, it tries to make a case for neurodiversity — that is, the idea that what constitutes "normal" might need reevaluation, that different sorts of abilities present themselves in different people. But the whole movie to that point has strenuously attempted to suggest that there’s nothing normal at all about Wolff. We are supposed to chuckle at his brusqueness. He’s weird! That’s the joke!

Anna Kendrick in The Accountant
Anna Kendrick in The Accountant.
Chuck Zlotnick / Warner Bros.

Call me crazy, but trying to normalize something by pointing at it and talking about it loudly doesn't make a lot of sense. Maybe it could be excused as a well-meaning stumble if it weren’t layered into a film with a plot that feels like a jigsaw missing half its pieces — missing pieces it attempts to replace with corpses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 people in the US are on the autism spectrum. And autism isn’t just part of people’s individual lives, public debate, and political campaigns. The desire to help audiences think about autism differently through characters they encounter at the movies is a good one.

But The Accountant — in addition to having a half-baked, underwritten plot — seems to want applause for having it both ways: a lesson in neurodiversity as progress, but also autism as plot device and comic relief. There’s a way to respect autistic individuals in the movies. The Accountant is the exact opposite.