(Note: This article contains spoilers for “The Accountant”. If you are planning to watch this movie for the first time and do not want any plot points spoiled, consider saving this opinion piece until after you have seen it.)
Back in 2016, an action flick called “The Accountant” was released. Starring Ben Affleck as Christian Wolff, an Autistic forensic accountant, prodigious in mathematics, shooting, and physical combat, the film looked at his ‘adventures’ as he uncovered corruption, and fought and killed ‘bad’ people as a vigilante, often to protect or avenge those he cared about – assisted by someone who was revealed to be a nonspeaking Autistic childhood friend of his who stayed at a center and used her technical proficiency to aid him on missions.
The film, as one can expect, was controversial. It drew praise and criticism alike from both Autistic and non-autistic individuals.
Many criticisms of the movie, particularly those put forth by Autistic critics, were valid, and I agree with many of them. For instance, I agree that adding flashy strobe lights was an unnecessary and harmful decision. I also agree that Autistic characters should be played by Autistic actors. The film also did not have that much diversity among its’ cast – all things that can and should be improved upon, especially should there ever be sequel(s) written. Autistic people should also be consulted and worked with on projects like these.
However…. In spite of these flaws, I nonetheless enjoy this film, and would like to share why – all the while, pointing out certain criticisms of the movie that I disagree with.
The Accountant’s Moral Compass
One major criticism that some Autistics had of this movie was the portrayal of an Autistic character as a killer. Now, this is absolutely a valid concern. Autistics are, unfortunately, sometimes stereotyped as dangerous, violent people – it doesn’t help that on the rare occasion when Autistic people do commit violent atrocities, they attempt to use being Autistic as a defense – which often results in Autistic people being stereotyped and hated as a consequence.
The problem with characterizing Christian Wolff as some soulless, remorseless, violent killer, however, is… inaccurate.
At most, he is akin to Frank Castle, better known as The Punisher – a Marvel comic character who, like The Accountant, eliminates ‘bad’ people. In fact, if you have seen The Punisher on Netflix, the dynamic between Wolff and Justine was a little similar to Punisher and Micro.
Now, many people also argue that The Punisher is not a good person at all, either – after all, what right do vigilantes have to play judge, jury, or executioner?
However, what is important to remember is that their motivations do not just stem from a desire to kill innocent people – they are not equivalent to mass shooters who gun down innocent people in cold blood, or ‘incels’ who are frustrated at a lack of romance, or political terrorists trying to send a message. These individuals have a sort of moral code, and the people they go after are themselves often violent, dangerous people who have taken the lives of others, many of whom never face any consequences.
Both characters are also motivated by the desire to avenge people they love being lost, and protecting individuals that they care about.
One can criticize the approach these characters take, however it is a complete mischaracterization to paint them as cold-blooded murderers. Especially when a sizeable portion of their kills on-screen were done to protect others – Christian Wolff saved the lives of an elderly couple, and later, a colleague, from extremely dangerous and vile individuals.
A common argument put forth is that Christian Wolff is not much more than a caricature.
Now, I think character development could have been vastly improved. However, over time I have realized that as an Autistic character, Christian is not as one-dimensional as some people have made him out to be. True, he sort of fits the stereotype of being a socially awkward math prodigy – but there is a lot more to him than that.
Wolff exhibits a number of other Autistic traits, that are often overlooked in favour of stereotypes. He is perseverant, and has an excellent amount of focus. Determined to solve a case he was working on, he looked at an extensive number of records overnight, working it all out and coming to major conclusions about fraud within a company. What he did takes more than some arithmetic skills: it takes very complex problem solving abilities, the ability to connect dots, to pay attention to minute details, and make logical conclusions based on the data observed.
Accounting itself takes a lot more than just good math skills to understand. When he deals with his clients, he demonstrates a very astute understanding of taxes and government policies, essentially helping some of his clients commit tax fraud.
All in all, his characterization is a lot more than just “quirky white math nerd”, it is of someone who was successfully able to learn and monetize a special interest of his, and develop sophisticated problem solving skills to help the people around him.
Many Autistic people have a strong sense of justice and fairness, and a desire to help others. Christian, as stated before, saved the lives of multiple people, and avenged a friend of his that was murdered.
Treatment of Autistics on Screen
Sia’s flop of a movie, Music, was heavily criticized for a number of reasons, some of them similar to The Accountant. However, one major controversial scene was that featuring a prone restraint, which was egregious enough to prompt Sia to remove it from future screenings.
What was the difference between that scene, and scenes in the movie featuring Christian Wolff’s abusive childhood flashbacks?
For one, that his experiences were portrayed as negative. Whereas Music depicts harmful interactions as positive and healthy, The Accountant does not shy away from the fact that Christian Wolff was raised in an abusive military environment where any supports or attempts to understand him were taken away, in favour of a brutal training regimen in stoicism, combat, and emasculation. As such, Wolff is accustomed to putting himself through sensory overloads on purpose to “overcome” it – scenes that could have been handled better, to be sure. But those scenes are clearly not portrayed as positive things – it was a trauma response akin to self-harm, evidenced by the fact that Christian would relive traumatic childhood memories during them.
Imagine a typical film about an Autistic character. What do you think of? Probably the same story: a perfect neurotypical family has an Autistic family member, usually a child, who provides either major challenges or some tacky ‘inspirational’ message as they struggle to navigate their daily lives. It is almost never about the Autistic person and how they feel.
The Accountant, in contrast, had a plot that deviated from a stereotypical “autism story”. Rather than being about a tragic burden on the family, or going through the motions of ‘learning social skills’, the movie featured an Autistic person successfully navigating the world, going on various adventures and tackling complex scenarios. It had an actual plotline.
While it is important to have authentic movies that take a look at the issues Autistics face, it is important to be represented in media where we are just regular characters going about lives just like everybody else – one of the reasons Carl Gould from the childhood series ‘Arthur’ is a good depiction of an Autistic character.
Overall Portrayal of Autism & Philosophical Considerations
The film’s overall mindset of Autism and Autistic people was surprisingly progressive, especially for its’ time. True, they didn’t get it all right, and true, Autistic people need to be consulted more and more for these types of projects.
However, presenting being Autistic as a divergence to be supported, rather than an illness to be ‘treated away’, was a central point of the movie. If there was any tragedy revolving around Autism in this movie, it was Christian’s abusive upbringing, that left deep scars in his psyche. The overall message was pro-neurodiversity – perhaps one of the first big movies of its’ kind to advocate such a thing. Words that are used by Autistics to describe Autistic traits such as ‘stimming’ was used. Portraying Autistic stimming as a calming, regulatory function was extremely well done – such as Christian’s tendency to recite “Solomon Grundy”, a childhood nursery rhyme, when in stressful situations.
Perhaps one of the most progressive plot points of the movie was to portray a nonspeaking Autistic woman as one of the key characters. It was a surprise reveal that she was the ‘voice’ that electronically communicated with him, by way of typing into a computer. It was quite spectacular to see a nonspeaking Autistic character portrayed in an active role – and it showed speaking and non-speaking Autistic people working together, looking out for one another – a very positive, and important message.
The Accountant is not without its’ flaws, from unnecessary flashy strobe lights to an apparent lack of Autistic consulting. The story development could have been vastly improved – at times it seemed bland, and very confusing to follow.
However, for its’ time, the movie is quite progressive. And it took a concept that needs to be seen more often in fiction – Autistic people organizing and working together toward common goals – and moved forward with it in a fascinating way.
Its’ depiction of Christian Wolff went far beyond the stereotypical “tragic inspiration” narrative of most Autistic media representation, and it centered the experiences of an Autistic character, that went beyond mere caricatures or stereotypes – and presented Autistic traits in a positive way.
In my opinion, we need more Autistic stories like this – depicting us working together toward common ends, fighting for causes we believe in, and demonstrating versatility in our talents. Stories that focus on Autistic people and what we have to offer to the world. Focusing not just on our flaws, but our strengths, and how we adapt to different situations.
The Accountant’s flaws should be taken as a way for future producers to improve upon movies like it. I, for one, would love to see a sequel – perhaps even one where he faces an Autistic adversary.