One of the opening scenes of “The Accountant” consists of puzzle pieces being dumped on a table, and that’s a fine metaphor for the film.
Director Gavin O’Connor and writer Bill Dubuque lay out a series of small mysteries, built mostly around the enigmatic central character. A few pieces can’t be made to fit, and two of those are big ones. (More on that in a minute.) But the rest of the story has been well-constructed, and the picture it gradually reveals keeps you guessing up to the final scene.
The story begins with a family torn by autism. The mother wants the elder of two brothers to get counseling and live in a sensory-friendly environment. The father insists the way to prepare both sons is to force them daily to confront their limits. When she quits him, he moves households constantly and exposes them to savage martial arts training.
The elder boy grows into a high-functioning autistic accountant, who adopts a series of aliases to launder the books of crime cartels. Ben Affleck, never an overly expressive actor, does good work as this closed-in man, who continues to toughen himself at 40 by listening to thrash metal, sitting in front of a strobe light and striking himself with a wooden stick.
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A Treasury agent (J.K. Simmons) wants to catch the accountant before retiring and assigns a smart financial analyst (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to run him to ground. But the accountant has bigger problems: After he successfully uncovers fraud at a robotics company, a hit man (Jon Bernthal) comes after him and the researcher who helped him (Anna Kendrick).
The filmmakers want us to reject social assumptions about autism and see such people as having different gifts, rather than prescribed limits. Fair enough. But the accountant becomes an unstoppable cyborg: He shoots without ever missing, defeats assassins of every kind, never makes a misjudgment and survives a brutal assault with only a cut lip. He’s like the love child of Jason Bourne and that math genius from “A Beautiful Mind.”
Two other things interrupt the smooth flow of a gripping story. The revelation of the film’s villain seems obvious, which is common in Hollywood, but it also makes nonsense of something the bad guy had done earlier.
And the film’s climax depends on a coincidence so far-fetched that it’s a “please don’t let it be that -- oh my Lord it is”-type howler. A character even asks the accountant, “What are the chances of this?” He mumbles something like, “Two billion to one.” True that.
Yet the story has many twists that do work, from the surprise of learning what was happening in the scene before the credits to the explanation of the telephone voice that guides the accountant through many adventures.
Though the accountant warms to the researcher, he knows he can never have a long relationship with her, and the story doesn’t demand one. And his character walks a delicate line of moral ambiguity: He works for crooks but sometimes attacks or undermines them, so you can’t fully judge him until the end.
P.S. After a quarter-century onscreen, Charlotte actor Robert C. Treveiler gets his best film role as the dictatorial dad. We are left to decide for ourselves if he helped or hurt his exceptional son; that, too, shows atypical complexity for a big-budget thriller.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, Jon Bernthal, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, J.K. Simmons.
Director: Gavin O’Connor.
Length: 128 minutes.
Rating: R (strong violence and language throughout).