Friday, October 14, 2016

The Accountant: Right on the money

The Accountant (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence and profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.14.16

Characters who defy expectations are a lot of fun.

Accountants toil in the back rooms of office obscurity, burdened further by a reputation for blandness: a pejorative they hardly deserve. The finest accountants are akin to ace detectives, concocting novel methods of financial wizardry, or uncovering corporate impropriety.

Having turned over the results of an analysis that required several months, Dana (Anna
Kendrick) is astonished to return to work the next morning, and find that Chris (Ben
Affleck) has cross-checked, enhanced and sourced the anomaly in question ... all
in a single day.
Link that profession with the savant and socially awkward characteristics of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man, or Christian Bale’s character in The Big Short, and the results can be captivating.

At first blush, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) fits the bill perfectly. We meet him assisting an elderly couple, Frank and Dolores Rice (Ron Prather and Susan Williams), through their tax prep, gently “steering” them into answers that formalize a home business with advantageous deductions. It’s a droll scene, all the more so because of Chris’ stoic, near immobility: his rigid posture, his failure to smile, his reluctance to meet his clients’ gaze.

We’re familiar with these signs: Chris is on the spectrum.

He returns home each evening to a stabilization ritual in the privacy of his bedroom: a bright light, ear-splittingly loud music, and methodical exercise, all timed to a specific schedule. Chris’ primary tic: He must finish anything he starts, otherwise he loses control.

Actually, the situation is more complicated. During flashbacks to Chris’ childhood — the character played here by Seth Lee, persuasively distressed — we see a boy in full-blown meltdown, unable to interact with an environment he finds too chaotic. Younger brother Brax (Jake Presley) watches helplessly, as their parents argue over treatment. Mom (Mary Kraft) favors intervention in the nurturing environment of a special needs school; Dad (Robert C. Treveiler), career military, insists that it’s more realistic to confront their elder son with a world that’ll never go out of its way to treat him fairly.

But wait: The situation is even more complicated.

Elsewhere, back in the modern day, U.S. Treasury Department Crime Enforcement Division head Ray King (J.K. Simmons), soon to retire, recounts an unlikely tale to recruit Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson). King shares a shadowy photo trail of a mysterious somebody — known only as “The Accountant” — who gets hired, somehow clandestinely, whenever the world’s most dangerous criminal organizations need their finances vetted.

Somehow, even more improbably, this “Accountant” survives these encounters, remaining available for the next summons by, say, the head of a drug cartel.

King wants to know who this “Accountant” actually is, before he retires. Medina reluctantly accepts the assignment.

We’ve already witnessed what King has yet to verify: Improbably, even impossibly, Christian Wolff is said individual. He gets his “commissions” via phone, from an unseen voice (female?) that also keeps careful surveillance on his movements, and those of anybody currently within his orbit.

It’s clear that screenwriter Bill Dubuque is an avowed genre fan, because his beguiling narrative blends the best parts of television’s Person of Interest, 1975’s Three Days of the Condor and crime thriller author Lawrence Block’s ongoing stories and novels about Keller (unassuming nice-guy stamp collector by day, dispassionate assassin by night ... who gets each “mission” by phone, from a handler known only as Dot).

Chris’ handler, having gotten wind of King’s investigation, suggests the safety of a legitimate assignment from a reputable client. Lamar Black (John Lithgow), the genius founder of Living Robotics, a state-of-the-art tech company making its mark with “neuro-prosthetics,” wishes verification of a potential discrepancy of millions of dollars: a hiccup discovered by low-level accounting clerk Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick).

Seems ordinary enough.

Chris’ introduction to Dana is droll, Affleck’s mild but somehow intense passivity a striking contrast to Kendrick’s bouncy, quick-to-smile charm. It’s a delightful meet-cute moment, perfectly calibrated by director Gavin O’Connor: plenty of mild chuckles, as Dana registers, processes and then attempts to navigate Chris’ chill behavior.

She senses that he isn’t unfriendly; indeed, he occasionally rewards her with a flickering smile. Still ... something.

By this point, we’re well and truly captivated. And when the situation at Living Robotics proves treacherous — which comes as no surprise, given Dubuque’s set-up — Anna quickly learns even more about her new colleague.

O’Connor knows his way around complex thrillers, having directed the pilot episode of TV’s The Americans (and produced many more). He deftly handles the cross-cutting in Dubuque’s script, each flashback revealing a little bit more about Chris, and the unusual adolescence that brought him to this moment. O’Connor and editor Richard Pearson also pace the film well, granting us time to grow comfortable with various character dynamics, and then startling us with an unexpected action sequence.

Such intense moments notwithstanding, Dubuque never overlooks the equally essential gentle humor; he’s also careful to make even minor characters significant. We eventually see more of Chris’ initial clients: that quaint elderly couple with a conveniently isolated farm. There’s also the matter of another rogue assassin (Jon Bernthal, persuasively lethal), cheerfully vicious, operating under equally independent circumstances. Who is this guy?

Affleck’s performance is crucial to this film’s success, for reasons that extend beyond story credibility. There’s a serious possibility of tasteless impropriety and resulting public opprobrium; I rather doubt that parents of autistic children will be relieved to learn that their kids can grow up to become lethal assassins. That aside, it’s equally important — as was the case in Rain Man and The Big Short — that we laugh with these men, and not at them.

Under O’Connor’s careful guidance, Affleck successfully walks the straight and narrow. We see this in the aforementioned opening scene, with Chris’ minimalist “hints” for Frank and Dolores: a slight nod, an all but imperceptible change of expression. Usually, such restraint would reflect the instincts of a cautious accountant; once we get to know Chris, and think back on this moment, we realize that it’s likely his best effort at genuine social interaction. That’s pretty clever, and by no means exploitative or demeaning.

Once Dana enters the picture, Affleck subtly reveals Chris’ struggle to connect — even bond — at a deeper level. We never, ever pity him, and that’s an important achievement.

On top of which, Dubuque plays it safe by spending time with the other children — and parents — at the special learning facility that Chris’ mother contemplates. Yes, the film’s epilogue has the quality of a spoon-fed sermon (albeit a gentle one), but that’s fine; as the campus’ director insists, it’s important to recognize that such children aren’t “unusual,” “weird” or “damaged”; they’re merely different.

And, as real-world people such as Michael Burry (The Big Short) have demonstrated, “different” can be very, very useful. (Speaking of whom, check out his recent activities.)

Kendrick seems heir to the quirky-cute tiara worn previously by Meg Ryan, Goldie Hawn and countless others; the pleasant bonus is that Kendrick’s various characters also display pluck and intelligence, both on view here. Dana certainly isn’t in Chris’ league, when it comes to puzzles and problem-solving, but she is the person who spotted Living Robotics’ financial irregularities ... which she reminds him, more than once.

Simmons, as always, is a droll, crusty delight, but it’s not a one-note part. King earns his own revealing flashback, which adds layers to both the character and Simmons’ performance. Addai-Robinson, in turn, is thoroughly credible as an ambitious junior agent looking to make her bones: We admire her persistence, even as we worry about what’ll happen, should she be successful.

Jeffrey Tambor, finally, is spot-on as Silverberg, a former black money accountant-turned-government witness, whose orbit intersects Chris’ at a point when the latter desperately needs a mentor (more flashbacks). Tambor is a true character actor, able to create fresh and wholly unique individuals each time he stands in front of a camera.

All concerned do commendable work, on both sides of the camera, and O’Connor assembles the package with panache. The Accountant is both a sizzling action thriller and a compelling character drama, much like the best Bourne entries.

And this one also has “franchise” written all over it.

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