New Affleck action thriller is not the “Accountant” we’ve all known

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There’s a degree of wit simply in naming an action thriller The Accountant. Even before the classic Monty Python sketches featuring Arthur Putey, accountants have traditionally been seen as comic dullards and drudges.

But, as with Jean Reno’s “The Cleaner” in La Femme Nikita, the term “accountant” has an extra meaning here—it’s moral as well financial books that get balanced.

Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff, one of many aliases of a bean-counter who secretly works for vast criminal enterprises, and gets paid in cash or gold bullion or Renoir and Pollack originals. Chris is a high-functioning autistic man of remote, robotic affect, given to self-stimulation and other obsessive behaviors in private.

For quite a stretch, this thriller, directed by Gavin O’Connor from a script by Bill Dubuque, takes an intriguingly quiet, reserved approach, giving us peeks into the title character’s life and backstory as he probes the seemingly cooked books of a prosthetics manufacturer (John Lithgow) and tentatively bonds with an amiably nerdy fellow accountant (Anna Kendrick). All the while, two Treasury operatives (J. K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are zeroing in on him.

Then, about midpoint, The Accountant suddenly spins into a tense and violent actioner, with shootouts and martial arts brawls. It’s quite effective on this level, too; the shift into Jason Bourne-style mayhem seems like an entirely natural turn for the movie to take.

Affleck keeps things admirably low-key as Chris, not letting more than a hint of loneliness or sly drollery slip out from behind the stony façade. All of the acting is strong, with Kendrick particularly endearing as the colleague, tirelessly friendly even as Chris keeps throwing her off-balance with his dogged literalism.

For its kind, the movie is really quite good. If it misses greatness, it’s in the final third, when it takes yet another turn, this time for the verbose. The Treasury man abruptly spews a big lump of exposition, and even with illustrative flashbacks it still calls up Simon Oakland’s explanatory lecture at the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s J. K. Simmons, so (as with Oakland) it’s delivered with enjoyable panache.

But it still feels artificial, and O’Connor and Dubuque allow several other characters to launch into similarly wordy and heavy-handed long rambles.

But this is less complaint than quibble. Considering the theme, and the impressive intricacy of the plot, it would be ungrateful to criticize O’Connor and Dubuque for making sure, perhaps overzealously, that all of the movie’s details are accounted for.

The Birth of a Nation

The title is a pointed appropriation from D. W. Griffith’s white supremacist epic of 1915. But this certainly isn’t a remake; it’s a historical melodrama based on the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in Virginia in August of 1831.

The historical Turner, enslaved on a plantation in Southhampton County, was a literate preacher who claimed to have been directed by God to organize his rebellion, which resulted in the killing of more than 50 whites over a couple of days. The reaction, unsurprisingly, was hysterical terror—hundreds of blacks were lynched or killed throughout the region in the weeks that followed, most of them not participants in the rebellion.

Turner is played (as an adult) in Birth of a Nation by Nate Parker, who also directed, from a script he wrote with Jean McGianni Celestin. Parker is s a brawny, potent screen presence, and he plays Turner as a sincere visionary, used by the plantation owner (Armie Hammer) as a lucrative itinerant propagandist for meek obedience at neighboring plantations. In the course of this servile work, he witnesses one atrocity after another, and must preach patience to the victims, gradually concluding that Divine Wrath is in order.

There is a harsh satisfaction in seeing the tables turned on the slavers (the movie glosses over the murders of their families). But, as with Anthropoid earlier this year—about Czech partisans killing Nazis in Prague in the ‘40s—a grim fatalism hangs over the story, since we know the reprisals will cost many more lives on Turner’s side.

This Birth of a Nation is skillful enough but blunt, both cinematically and dramatically. It isn’t dull—the action moves along grippingly.

But the characterizations aren’t rich, although the actors are vivid, and the motivations aren’t complex.

This is one of several movies of recent years—12 Years a Slave was another, better one—that graphically depict hideous torture, rape and other outrages against enslaved Americans.

This isn’t mere exploitation; there are artistically and politically valid reasons for such depictions, the most obvious being that for decades, American movies simply ignored or softened these realities.

But valid or not, they aren’t easy to watch. Coupled with the thinly-drawn characters and the unsubtle, functional dialogue, they leave Parker’s Birth of a Nation sour and unsatisfying.

The Accountant and The Birth of a Nation are both rated R, and both play at Harkins Tempe Marketplace 16, Harkins Arizona Mills 25, and other multiplexes Valleywide.

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