Hello, friends. It’s time to talk about movies. Tonight I suffered through “The Accountant” because I received free admission. When I originally posted about this movie — warning that it sounded a hell of a lot like a bunch of really bad messages about autism — I foresaw that some might insist that they could only listen seriously to someone who actually saw the movie. So in the interest of providing a real review, I decided to take the plunge and watch this movie for you all.
[TW: discussion of ableist film and ableist language]
***I must warn you that this film is neither very sensory-friendly or epileptic-safe. There are several scenes of very disorienting patterns throughout the film, and there are multiple scenes involving a rapidly flashing, very bright light. Please take precautions if you choose to watch this film.***
From the previews and trailers, here’s what we know about this film before going to see it: “Christian Wolff (played by Ben Affleck) is some kind of genius savant. He’s brilliant at accounting and his unparalleled skill at mathematics means that he can work for some of the most morally dubious characters the world has to offer and successfully uncook the books. But get this — he’s also a deadly assassin and a force to be reckoned with.”
The character of Christian Wolff is coded as and explicitly referred to as autistic. But this movie isn’t about autism. This movie is really about toxic masculinity, child abuse, violence, stereotyped portrayals of disabled people, and truth vs. bullshit. I really don’t think any of that was intentional. I would bet you that the people who made this film believe it has a sincere message about autism and neurodiversity, set against a backdrop of exciting action scenes. Yet the reality is nothing like that. It largely fails to create an interesting storyline, compelling characterization beyond hackneyed tropes and painful stereotypes, and an original enough plot so as not to be predictable or strongly reminiscent of other specific movies. The cinematography is also poor, with many scenes involving mostly shadows fighting where you cannot even tell who is who in the encounter.
While watching this movie, I wanted to leave very early on. Not just because of the whole autism problem here, but simply because it wasn’t very interesting. I’m a big fan of movies about crime and these are often pretty violent and definitely full of action. “The Accountant” was seriously lackluster. Casting was really boring. Everyone was white except for one character. The casting was heavily male-dominated, with men driving nearly all — if not all — of the action. Even the lone female major character was only involved because she was being blackmailed and the love interest was only involved because she was the love interest (and therefore there for the male gaze). The only disabled people in this movie were a group of amputees receiving new robotic prosthetic limbs — essentially “getting missing pieces to make them whole” as the film’s characters say (This is hardly an appropriate way to talk about physically disabled people!) — and the small handful of autistic people pictured in the film, the major one being Christian Wolff, of course.
So let’s talk about Wolff. As a young child, the main character is shown at a neurodevelopmental center putting together a puzzle while his parents talk to a specialist. The specialist obliquely tells Wolff’s parents that their child has autism, though the specialist does not believe in using labels for some reason. The prognosis seems to enrage the father, who says he won’t let Wolff learn at the center for the summer, in favor of relentlessly training him (abusing him) to be a homicidal machine. At the center, we see another example of an autistic person, a young woman named Justine, who seems to be intended to show a “shocking”, “scary”, and “low-functioning” side of autism. This literally only means that she is sitting in a chair stimming frequently and openly, but I don’t think many people in the audience actually understand stimming enough to know that it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Justine. To them, I think the intent is to show how “mysterious” and “confusing” we are.
“The Accountant” is beyond exploitative. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone thought up some buzzwords like “autism” and “assassin” and decided to try to combine it into a totally misshapen and disrespectful film. This movie may have been intended to be “about” autism, but it’s definitely not written with an autistic audience in mind. In this respect, it is literally painful. The worst thing about “The Accountant” is that Wolff’s autistic traits and behaviors are played either for shock or for laughs. The most horrible thing I’ve witnessed in a long time is the actual audience LAUGHING whenever Wolff does things like misunderstand a joke, answer a rhetorical question literally, etc. It’s not like this is comedic in any sense. Wolff is clearly not trying to make a joke and/or is having difficulty with something, causing stress. It’s truly not funny. And I’m not going to publicly discuss how this affected me, but I will say that it did affect me deeply.
So aside from creating a character whose autistic traits (bluntness, literal thinking, misunderstanding communications, having trouble with emotions and facial expressions, etc.) are mocked as comedy by the very audience — thank you, Gavin O’Connor and Bill Dubuque — there’s the whole thing where they literally went and made Christian Wolff a violent assassin. Were autistics already dealing with the blame for many acts of violence and school shootings? You bet. So you can bet we’re fucking thrilled that Hollywood has gifted us another stoic, emotionless, killing machine. Movies aren’t just movies, kids. Media is critical to how we emotionally, socially, and intellectually understand many issues.
The movie does a weird thing at the end — it tries to have a message. So we’ve watched countless people die and a gazillion rounds of ammunition have been exhausted and everyone’s had a chuckle or two because autistic people are such “freaks” (the movie’s wording, not mine), and now we find out that autistics are special and wonderful and you have to help them. Oh, and they legit drop scare-statistics about autism. I cringed so hard.
So is this movie redeemed because Christian Wolff is a genius? I would answer with a hearty “fuck no”. It’s yet another trope that reduces us to special abilities, and turns our lives into spectacle for the non-autistic-gaze. We don’t need any special savant skills to prove our worth to you. We are enough, just being ourselves. It’s high time Hollywood knew this.