scene from The Accountant

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers/Electric City Entertainment

The Accountant

| published October 26, 2016 |

By Cameron Dale, Thursday Review contributor

Follow the money. That’s what decades of movies and television has taught us: savvy investigators and smart law enforcement do this when confronted with vexing criminal challenges. They follow the money.

Payments lead from a source to a recipient, with all that cash leaving a trail of cookie crumbs along the way. In the 1930s, Chicago gangland chieftain Al Capone was nabbed not by eyewitness versions of his murder and mayhem, but by smart number crunchers able to back-track his lavish expenses to prove he had been avoiding taxes. In the 1980s, crime boss John Gotti, likewise, was collared because his cash trail proved his expenses outstripped his income year after year. In the massive multijurisdictional cases against Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar in the 1990s and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in 2014, the trail of cash—whether paper, coin, or electronic—proved invaluable to police.

But it also works in reverse. In additional to top notch lawyers, criminal organizations also need extremely smart accountants to keep track of the money, using methods which keep the numbers off the books and out of plain view. For the operations to work well and seamlessly, those numbers crunchers should appear to be Regular Joe and Jane bean counters—pocket protectors, highlighters, calculators, a humorless, even grim attitude about their task would help. Hang a shingle on your storefront and keep a few Main Street customers flowing in and out each week; meanwhile clean and examine the books for groups and individuals who operate best in the shadows, back channels, and the twilight of legality.

The Accountant, directed by Gavin O’Connor and based on the screenplay by Bill Dubuque, tells just such a fictional tale. Criminal groups need to hire the right sort of savants to unravel their own cash flow problems and their own internal forms of skimming, often to the tune of millions or billions of dollars. Sort of cooking the books, in reverse.

Enter Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), whose name alone transmits his duality and his complex relationships with people. A high functioning autistic introvert—quiet and withdrawn to the point of being socially awkward—he has the gift of numbers. Wolff is a savant, easily tracking and managing those numbers in his head, but when given the proper tools and enough time, his skill at sorting fact from fiction on the books is lethal, to put it mildly.

Wolff, a CPA, operates a boutique accounting and bookkeeping shop in his quiet community, but in fact he keeps the books for some of the most dangerous people in the world—criminals, black operators, gangsters, mob figures. His intuitive skill with accounting makes him valuable, not only to legitimate customers but also to some bad people who pay well.

Our man Wolff also engages in scores of behaviors familiar to anyone with a family member in the grip of obsessive compulsive behavior: meticulous food sorting on the plate (bacon must not touch the omelet); avoidance of touching light switches or buttons with a bare finger; obsessive triple and quadruple checking locks. Wolff overcomes apparent childhood fears—loud heavy metal music, bright strobe lights, certain forms of physical pain—by embracing them ritualistically. He also hides a posh RV inside a rented storage locker, where he relaxes to classical music and an abstract expressionist painting by Jackson Pollack.

Wolff never sees his criminal customers, nor does he talk to them directly; his clients come by way of a middleman who Wolff himself knows only by phone. His clients pay him well to unravel financial “crimes” and skims committed against the criminals. Wolff has also gathered the attention of the Feds, who now track his movements and his activities closely. Treasury agents and the FBI suspect—but cannot prove, yet—his contractual involvement with groups engaged in money laundering and tax avoidance, not to mention deeper criminal activities. As the Feds close in, Wolff’s unseen handler suggests that he take on a big legitimate client—an effective way to turn his skills toward a major corporate project while the Treasury case against him cools.

Predictably, that legitimate corporate audit turns dark, and dangerous: a bean counter at a high tech robotics firm discovers that tens of millions in cash and profits have gone missing, though internally the company brass is divided over what to do and even the significance of the fraud. There are threats of murder, and at least one corporate exec commits suicide. Attempting to quash any deeper probes into the mess, Wolff is paid for his work and told he is dismissed. Not surprisingly, this sudden shutdown of his accounting investigation clashes profoundly with his obsessive behavior and his need for strict closure. He is left dissatisfied and adrift, tortured even.

The corporate intrigue deepens, and involves more murder. Wolff, who now knows too much, is himself now pursued by a stone cold killer bent on covering the tracks of the embezzlement and the true nature of the more complex crimes.

The movie gives us lots of Wolff’s special back story, including numerous flashbacks of his childhood and early teen years with a single father—hours spent flailing, pounding his head, or engaged in repetitive behaviors. Nearly institutionalized as a kid, his parents were torn philosophically between the dueling programs of coddling (his mother) or college-of-hard-knocks (his father). But we also see the emergence of that young man with an immense gift for mathematics and numbers. We also revisit some of his distant past spent in prison, where he becomes friends with another numbers genius Francis Silverberg (played by Jeffrey Tambor), a former bookkeeper and accountant for the Gambino branch of the Mafia. Despite that he never sings to police while in jail, Silverberg is murdered after his release, spurring Wolff into a rampage of revenge. This mob backstory, as it turns out, is directly related to his current troubles—though it takes us a while to get to that point.

This movie is well crafted and well produced—slick, neatly packaged, nicely filmed, with credible interactions between characters. But it really struck me as too many plots and too many sub-stories packed into one film. All those background details—however revealing and compelling—seem like a medical documentary about autism and special needs grafted uneasily onto the central plot of a criminal accountant. And the Mafia backstory too, however interesting and mildly original—seems to clash with the backbone of the main plot. The time shifts also force upon us an uneasy feeling; the abrupt changes in mood and tone do not work well, and made me think I was really watching three movies stitched together in the final edit.

Despite my complaints, however, The Accountant is a generally satisfactory movie, and well worth catching at the theater. Not non-stop action of the kind we saw in Jason Bourne or Mechanic: Resurrection, but it has its moments, especially as the film progresses toward its violent conclusion. The movie is also a good vehicle for Affleck, who shines in a lead role which requires discipline and a reminder that less can be more.

Great cast includes J.K. Simmons (you’ll know him from his Farmers Insurance ads on TV), Anna Kendrick, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow, and Cynthia Addai-Robinson, as well as Tambor in a key role. Shot almost entirely in and around Atlanta, and in the surrounding suburbs and outlying areas, even though the story places us in rural Illinois and some parts of Chicago.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Remake Goes West: The Magnificent 7; Cameron Dale; Thursday Review; October 15, 2016.

Suicide Squad; Maggie Nichols; Thursday Review; September 3, 2016.