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Ben Affleck plays autistic hero in ‘The Accountant’

Anna Kendrick and Ben Affleck star in

Anna Kendrick and Ben Affleck star in "The Accountant," opening Oct. 14. Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures / Chuck Zlotnick

An action thriller called “The Accountant” sounds like a parody cooked up by The Onion. What does the hero do? Leap tall balance sheets in a single bound? Bend the steely will of the IRS with his bare hands? No. And he also happens to be autistic. And played by Ben Affleck.

But as tongue-in-cheek as the premise sounds, “The Accountant” — opening Oct. 14 — has a solid quotient of intrigue. Christian Wolff (Affleck) is a savant-ish forensic accountant with a genius for uncooking the books of the world’s most unsavory clients — drug cartels, domestic mobsters, terrorists. He has an equally remarkable facility with guns, knives and mixed martial arts, and a flair for escaping the tightest spots. He’s had a tortured past, an oppressive father (Robert C. Treveiler) and a brother whose whereabouts will be a big part of the story.

He’s also being chased by the Treasury Department: Ray King (J.K. Simmons), head of the Crime Enforcement Division, is blackmailing an agent, Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), into tracking down Christian — who’s far too cunning to have left a trail.

The original idea — sequels do seem a big part of the equation — came from producer Mark Williams, who took it to screenwriter Bill Dubuque, and they to director Gavin O’Connor, the former Huntingtonian (“Mom’s still there, 86 years old”), whose films include “Tumbleweeds,” “Miracle,” “Warrior” and most recently “Jane Got a Gun.” (O’Connor also directed the pilot of “The Americans” and is involved with the new Netflix series “Seven Seconds”). He said when you make a movie about a hero with an extraordinary intellect it naturally makes for a “higher IQ movie.”

“I think the film challenges you to pay attention and engage with it,” O’Connor said. “Given the puzzle of the film, which Bill created, you really have to pay attention. You don’t know where it’s going once it starts. It’s sort of a Rubik’s cube.” That puzzle — why and where is the dark money flowing — is just one of the movie’s mysteries.

Christian, who is guided through his various adventures by a robotic, Siri-like voice that seems to be inhabiting his car’s dashboard, is brought in to ferret out the suspicious losses discovered by junior accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) at a prosthetics company, Living Robotics, owned by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow) and his sister, Rita (Jean Smart). People with pieces of the puzzle start being deducted from the ranks of the living, thanks to a sarcastic hit man (Jon Bernthal), who has Dana in his crosshairs. Christian is fairly taciturn. But when he discusses a case with that disembodied voice, he can cut to the chase:

“I have to find the person who wants to kill her,” he says of Dana.

“And?”

“Shoot them in the head.”

The autism angle in the film is a novel one, guaranteed to spark discussion and maybe provide a slightly misguided hero for people on the spectrum. (A 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified one in 68 children — one in 42 boys, one in 189 girls — as having autism spectrum disorder). O’Connor said he didn’t have any family with autism but, like many of us, he has friends who do.

The film, he said, “was an opportunity to really climb inside the world and meet with therapists and doctors and educators and specialists. I’d never done that before. I’d never read books about the subjects, or seen all the documentaries I watched and all the people I met.”

They included Laurie Stephens, who runs a school called Extraordinary Minds. Stephens allowed Affleck and O’Connor to meet with about 30 men between 18 and 30, all on the spectrum, most of them high-functioning. “She afforded us an opportunity to sit down with them individually, or in a classroom environment, asking questions, creating dialogue and that informed how to build the character.”

Usually, film directing involves getting an actor to express the proper emotions. “The Accountant” would seem to require the reverse.

“It was really challenging,” O’Connor said. “People on the spectrum, they feel, they just so don’t express the feeling. And the way we handled it was trying to find very specific and unique behaviors. As far as Ben’s performance, and I’m really proud of it, when you’re playing someone who’s a ‘genius’ you have to fight the temptation, especially if you’re a good actor, to show off. We were really conscious of not doing that.”

The biggest thing he walked away with, the director said, “is that every single person on the spectrum is unique to themselves. No one is the same; everyone is different. They’re as different as — they call us ‘typicals’ — every one is unique and individualistic as typicals are.” Sometimes, he said, an autistic person’s negative behavior is simply a reaction to someone or something invading or interrupting the pattern of behavior that makes them comfortable.

“I met someone who always has to sit in the exact same spot in the exact same chair,” he said. “There was someone else who had to have the same parking spot — if he didn’t have the same space, he couldn’t park his car.”

You don’t have to be on the spectrum to act like that, it’s suggested.

“No, I guess,” O’Connor laughed, “but maybe if you act like that, maybe you are on the spectrum.”

Flawed but fabulous

It’s a delicate matter, dealing with a physical impairment, or neurological disability, or neurodevelopmental disorder in a piece of pop entertainment — even though Marvel does it constantly. (Iron Man has a heart condition; Professor X is a paraplegic; Daredevil, once played by Ben Affleck, is blind, and most of its characters seem emotionally impaired.) But those are superheroes. In “The Accountant,” Affleck plays an autistic accountant, a lethal combination of Muay Thai and math skills, and it makes one wonder what other movie heroes have had something other than bad guys to overcome.

RAIN MAN (1988) Director Barry Levinson’s Oscar-winning classic stars Dustin Hoffman as the autistic savant Raymond who provides his hustler brother (Tom Cruise) with an emotional education. It’s a road movie by default — Raymond refuses to fly because he has a head full of grim airline statistics. (The in-flight version of the film on at least 15 airlines had that scene cut out.)

MY LEFT FOOT (1989) Daniel Day-Lewis won the first of his several Oscars for playing the real-life Christy Brown, an Irish poet and painter who was stricken from birth with cerebral palsy, leaving only his left foot with which to paint. Like “Silver Linings Playbook,” it confronted Brown’s condition head-on, with neither pity nor compromise.

ZATOICHI (2003) When multifaceted Japanese star Takeshi Kitano stepped into the role of the blind swordsman Zatoichi, it elevated a franchise that had seen literally dozens of incarnations on TV and the big screen, about the Edo-era warrior whose blindness is an asset in vanquishing ne’er-do-wells. Created by novelist Kan Shimozawa, Zatoichi got the western treatment in “Blind Fury,” a 1990 thriller starring Rutger Hauer.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) David O. Russell’s wonderfully romantic and sardonic comedy won an Oscar for Jennifer Lawrence, nominations for almost everyone else and had a lead character with bipolar disorder — Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), whose parents (Robert De Niro, Jackie Weaver) demonstrated that mental disorder is often all about the diagnosis.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014) Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for James Marsh’s film about mathematician Stephen Hawking and his battle with ALS. Hawking reportedly gave it a virtual thumbs up.

— John Anderson

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