With so much attention focused on autism these days, I was hoping that The Accountant, a recent movie featuring a protagonist on the spectrum, would help break through autism stereotypes. But that’s NOT what happened when the role of Christian Wolff was played by Seth Lee as a boy and Ben Affleck as an adult. Instead Affleck’s portrayal reinforced unfortunate autism stereotypes by depicting a blank-eyed character with a robotic demeanor, lacking the ability or desire to form close relationships. Affleck (as Christian Wolff) completely misrepresents the talents of a high-functioning person on the spectrum. In other words, the movie character Christian Wolff, an accountant for criminal organizations, is so far from authentic that I experienced him as an unbelievable lie.
First, there’s no such thing as an autistic math savant who is ALSO a martial arts expert AND a sharp shooter (who wears glasses!) AND fearlessly kills people both near and far. For a movie to be successful or entertaining on any level, audiences must be willing to either believe or willingly suspend their disbelief in the characters and plot. Careful research and attention to detail are essential for generating an appreciative audience response. Obviously, director Gavin O’Connor and actor Ben Affleck never bothered to do enough serious research about gifted people on the spectrum. If they had talked to a high functioning person on the spectrum or someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, both director and actor would have learned that a brilliant math and accounting whiz with autism usually has problems with his hand/eye coordination and motor skills, making it impossible for him to become either a sniper or a deadly fighter.
Ironically, the movie begins almost like a documentary on autism. After doctors have been consulted and tests conducted, young Christian is diagnosed with autism. His parents split up after arguing about their son’s treatment. Mom favors a gentle, special ed approach and (inexplicably) decides to abandon the family when Dad, a sadistic military man, insists on a mainstream school and mercilessly trains Christian and his neurotypical brother in martial arts, so they can fight back against bullies.
Flashing forward to the grown up Christian, we see Ben Affleck as an accountant, working out of a modest office in a strip mall. He has managed to acquire an original Renoir and a Jackson Pollack, as payment from mobsters and drug dealers for money laundering. The movie abruptly switches from preachy documentary to a shoot-em’ up crime thriller. Christian has morphed into an autistic Jean Claude Van Dam, who calmly kills his enemies when he’s not meticulously demonstrating his math genius with Living Robotics—his one seemingly legitimate corporate client—that makes prosthetic limbs. Just as Living Robotics is about to go public, a junior accountant at the company (Anna Kendrick) discovers a $61 million discrepancy in the books. Of course, she and Christian investigate together.
Ms. Kendrick plays a sweet, quietly attractive geek who offers the possibility of romance. This subplot might have humanized the robotic Christian and allowed him to break the autism stereotype of a damaged, rigid loner. An awkward relationship blossoming between the two accountants might have demonstrated an important truth about most people with autism: people on the spectrum crave loving connections as much as neurotypical people do, even though they struggle mightily to express these feelings. What could have happened if audiences had seen a budding romance on the spectrum? To begin with, we might actually have grown to LIKE Christian as an individual. Additionally, and equally important, there would have been ample opportunity for humor—a much needed breath of fresh air in an otherwise bleak and shallow movie.
Instead of humanizing Christian, The Accountant juggles several subplots and drops the ball. The Treasury Department is trying to identify the criminal accountant. John Lithgow plays the nasty, cynical founder of Living Robotics, who doesn’t want Christian to trace the missing money from the balance sheet, even though he was hired for that job. There’s also a mysterious assassin, running around murdering people in a ruthless, gory manner. By the time we finally understand the assassin’s identity and all the loose threads in this film are messily tied together (at the very end), I’m betting most audiences won’t care.
I certainly didn’t care. What I do care about is seeing characters on the spectrum portrayed authentically as individuals. I know that Ben Affleck is a “bankable” movie star, but playing the accountant was NOT one of his stellar performances. Why not give a talented actor on the spectrum a chance to play this starring role? Certainly, some children on the spectrum could easily have played the role of Christian melting down as a boy and served as extras in the early scenes with ASD kids. Isn’t it time for more people with disabilities to be represented in the entertainment industry? Why not give young actors with disabilities a chance play those characters? Maybe they’ll do a more convincing job. At the very least, casting directors should be consulting with autism experts (yes, I’m available!). I don’t know about you, but I’m voting for a more inclusive future for actors with autism, no matter who becomes our next president.