Mild spoilers for both The Accountant and The Girl on the Train follow.
Near the beginning of The Accountant, there’s a flashback scene at a home for children with neurological disorders in which a young boy dumps out puzzle pieces on a table, and then becomes increasingly agitated when he can’t find the last one. Eventually a young girl who resides at the facility picks up the final piece from the floor and hands it to the boy. The puzzle is solved. The film moves on to present day, where the young boy is now an accountant with a severely flattened emotional affect played by Ben Affleck.
As introductory scenes go, it’s only marginally less subtle than a flashing neon sign announcing, “This movie is a puzzle!” and you’re about to spend the next two hours putting it together. Like so many contemporary thrillers, The Accountant is packed with revelations and reveals, all of which the movie hopes you won’t see coming. The final act, in particular, is structured as a cascade of narrative bombshells, one after another, each more ludicrous than the last.
The movie’s problem isn’t just that its twists are unbelievable; it’s that they are pointless, empty exercises in narrative shock work that serve only to provide a moment’s jolt before moving on to the next one. When you put the puzzle together, it turns out there’s nothing to see. The Accountant is a thriller that doesn’t add up.
This is a problem that haunts too many contemporary thrillers: an addiction to empty shock and surprise, to stories that curveball wildly and characters that aren’t who they seem — usually, it turns out, because they are hardly characters at all. It’s not just that these movies require more than the usual levels of suspension of disbelief; it’s that they’re not even really stories. Instead, they’re extended exercises in narrative nihilism, in which head-spinning contrivances are piled on top of each other like spaghetti towers built to see how high they can be stacked before the whole thing falls over.
Keeping viewers in the dark to preserve a twist denies them character development
You can sense when these sorts of twists are coming by the way a movie refuses to present pertinent information. A week before The Accountant, The Girl on the Train took viewers on a different sort of ride, hiding its string of third-act reveals in a grab bag of deceptive storytelling tricks: The story is told out of order, and events that didn’t happen are presented as if they did. Characters hide things from each other even when it makes little sense to do so, and then indulge in dramatic hysterics that serve as additional layers of concealment when crucial information comes to light. Everything, from the pacing to the set design, is constructed to service the eventual big reveal; it’s a twist-delivery system disguised as a feature film.
The Girl on the Train is about a woman who is abused by her husband, who gaslights her into thinking she committed acts she did not commit. But it strings along its viewers by gaslighting them, too, not to demonstrate the sickening power of such lies but to take advantage of viewers’ inherent vulnerabilities. There’s an unavoidable imbalance of power between filmmakers and viewers, and both The Accountant and The Girl on the Train are designed to exploit it, simply because they can.
Both films aspire to some sort of social relevance: The Girl on the Train wants to be a parable about abusive men and their female victims; The Accountant occasionally seems to want to act as a vehicle for a greater and more empathetic understanding of autism. But neither really has anything to say about its chosen subject, because doing so might distract from its delivery of contrivance.
Keeping viewers in the dark about the story means keeping viewers in the dark about the characters. And that means that just about everyone in both films is a blank — at best a collection of tics, at worst a void of personality. The women in The Girl on the Train are types, not people, who exist entirely to service the convoluted narrative schema; it’s hard to imagine any of them having a meaningful inner life, with ambitions and preferences and personal experiences, or an existence outside the confines of the film.
Meanwhile, Affleck’s autistic action hero in The Accountant isn’t so much a character as a gimmick, given just enough backstory, delivered in flashback, to set up the plot twists. Most of the rest of the characters in the film — in particular a violent rival character played by Jon Bernthal — are similarly blank.
Knowing any more about these characters would spoil the ending of their respective movies, and so these movies turn their characters into vapid pawns, moved from setup to red herring to twist to final reveal. And viewers are manipulated right along with them.
Effective thrillers don’t just reveal — they enlighten
The various subgenres of thriller have always relied on a certain level of misdirection, of course, and plenty have arrived at their finales only to evince eye rolls instead of — or at least in addition to — exclamations. The psychological thriller, in particular, seems susceptible to the problems of too many, and too-clever, ruses; think of star-driven nail-biters like Hide and Seek or What Lies Beneath, both movies far too eager to deliver their implausible endings.
But both The Girl on the Train and The Accountant lack any sort of psychology at all. The characters are empty vessels, the stories mere collections of vacant thrills.
It’s not that twists are always bad. Far from it. A film like Gone Girl, for example, which doled out plenty of twists yet never artificially withheld information, is a model of the form: Its story was grounded in a particular place and time, and its shocks were driven by the specifics of its characters and their lives. When it was all over, the characters had a greater understanding of their own lives — and so did viewers.
The most effective surprises, then, are those that enlighten as well as jolt, that give their stories and characters a new and deeper meaning rather than simply turning them upside down and inside out. They are not merely reveals but revelations — puzzles that, when put together, help us see that there’s a bigger picture.