Movie Review - The Accountant

11th November 2016

'The Accountant' (rated R, so adults only!) centres on Christian Wolff, a high functioning mathematical savant who is firmly on the autistic spectrum but who is also a fighting machine and seriously dangerous dude. We see him working in a small office giving financial advice to farmers but he has another life ‘uncooking the books’ for mobsters and drug cartels, with the skills - for maths and for violence - necessary to survive such associations. When the situation changes, he must decide who’s side he’s on.

Ben Affleck
A traumatic childhood including some rather bizarre training twists an exceedingly gifted young man who struggles with his autistic traits into some sort of new breed of dark super hero, one who uses his mind as much as his talent for violence to fight the ‘bad guys’. He’s both a dangerous villain and a hero. Even when doing ‘the right thing’ he is acting on his own version of morality; however this does include protecting the innocent, just like a superhero. What he does with the money he earns also adds another crucial dimension to his character…

I was intrigued by the idea that being autistic, something seen by many people as a kind of handicap, can actually make someone nearly superhuman. Especially when mathematical skills are such a big part of it, which of course we love. When you add combat training you create a unique character, even if it has to be done by relying on autistic stereotypes to a certain extent. You can see why his particular character and skills, especially his autistic traits, would help him to obsessively focus on the ‘job’ at hand, and become like a superhero.  

But if the job in question includes slaughtering people, even bad people, or working for mobsters then is this the kind of autistic ‘superhero’ figure we want to create? Let's make it clear, this is a bad dude in many respects... but he also has the instinct to do a great deal of good.

Affleck as Wolff, being a bad dude on a surveillance video. 

At ConquerMaths we have a lot of students who are on the spectrum and everyone on the team has some meaningful experience, some very directly, with someone with autism so we are particularly sensitive to its portrayal in media and entertainment, especially in blockbuster movies. With the same awareness we have previously reviewed 'X + Y' which also features a protagonist on the spectrum with impressive mathematical skills. So we interested to see how this autistic anti-hero would be presented. 

The opening scene shows Wolff as a child, and we see how ill-equipped his parents were to deal with him. The mother seems resentful while the furious father fears his son will not be able to cope with the world, saying “If bright lights and loud noises bother him, he needs more of it, not less! The world is not a sensory friendly place, and that’s where he needs to learn to live.’ The father is determined that his son won’t be a ‘victim’ but takes this ‘tough love’ to a disturbing extreme, creating this dangerous but conflicted character.

There’s a saying in the autistic community: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” meaning while there are traits which are more common, everyone is different.

There are certain stereotypes in Hollywood which are used to demonstrate that a person is on the spectrum, and we see lots of these when it comes to Christian Wolff. He has a self-stimulating tic of blowing onto his fingertips. He takes prescription medication. He doesn’t do sarcasm. He rarely shows emotion.He has only one knife, one fork and one spoon.

He doesn’t understand figures of speech and when he realises he has taken something too literally, he recovers with a well-practiced “I’m joking” followed by “Have a nice day!”. He doesn’t understand vocal inflection, and is blunt to the point of rudeness despite clearly trying not to offend. He doesn’t see the point in eating lunch with his pretty new colleague Dana, played sweetly as a counterpoint to Wolff by Anna Kendrick. He does have feelings, he does want to socialise but just can’t.

Anna Kendrick

Many familiar ‘markers’ of high functioning autism, otherwise known as stereotypes, which can be frustrating for those in the know… and yet if you don’t use these ‘markers’ that the average audience member can recognize, then they may not realise the person is even on the spectrum. 

My favourite clichés though, were actually in reference to Wolff’s mathematical abilities. There is a pivotal sequence when he is doing calculations to identify a leak in years of corporate records during a rare ‘clean’ job investigating missing funds from a legitimate corporation.

In this scene, not only does he enjoy a muttered numerical voiceover, but he even does his calculations on the window, which seems to be an unwritten Hollywood rule now when it comes to depicting mathematicians.

The only time Wolff is happy and animated is while discussing his mathematical findings with Dana, how even within chaos he can identify order. This shows how numbers are reliable; he can understand their logic, and we know that is the case for many of our autistic students too.

Wolff also uses the names of famous mathematicians as aliases, including Lewis Carroll, which in itself was the psuedonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson which I thought was a nice touch.

Lewis Carroll

Overall his genius for mathematics is shown as an impressive superpower to have, which of course it is. Adding his talent for violence is almost like brawn actually matching up to brain for a change, creating a unique anti-hero.

'The Accountant' is not a film for children; the violence is gratuitous, the morality is questionable and it is an at times bleak depiction of an extreme life lived on the spectrum… but symbolically the character suggests a completely different way of looking at autism and I would be fascinated to see what an autistic adult and their friends and family would make of it. It also presents maths skills as a super power, and we think that's awesome.

We’re sure lots of accountants, mathematicians and maths fans are going to love this film too – finally a mathematical superhero! This film does a pretty good job making the protagonist and his skills impressive and we are pretty excited about that, even if it makes for tough viewing at times.

The Accountant ultimately suggests that being on the spectrum makes people no less, just different, and if these differences can help people do great – even superhuman - things they should be embraced and celebrated. It suggests that we haven’t yet learnt to listen properly and if we stop worrying about what autistic people can’t do, we would discover they were capable of so, so much more. They could be superheroes.

We liked that.