Ben Affleck’s Accountant: an autistic savant with a killer complex

Gavin O’Connor, director of the hit thriller, takes a realist approach to an over-the-top plot

 

Those who live with somebody on the autistic spectrum will surely feel torn watching The Accountant, a new, high-octane, US box-office topper. On the one hand, the film, which stars Ben Affleck as a madly skilled maths whizz and super-assassin, demonstrates an eagerness to provide the autistic community with a superhero to call their own.

On the other, it will likely swell the numbers of dimwits who, upon hearing a diagnosis of autism, respond with: “Oh, I’ve seen Rain Man and that BBC documentary; what trick can they do?”

Director Gavin O’Connor, a tall, broadly shouldered chap who looks as if he could square up to any of the tough guys who populate his movies, has pondered this conundrum.

“They’re experiencing a world we don’t understand,” he nods. “And it’s a world that’s fascinating and magical. I have many friends with autistic children; we all do. At this point everybody knows someone, right?

“So one of the things that was important to me and to Ben was to go into it as if we knew nothing. Put aside preconceptions. We met educators and specialists. We watched documentaries and read books. We sat down with men, aged 18-30, on the spectrum to varying degrees, and we spent a lot of time with these guys. They knew exactly what we were doing, and they opened up to us.”

Aware that autism is not actually a superpower, O’Connor carefully inserted flashback sequences into the film, scenes in which Affleck’s protagonist recalls a no-nonsense upbringing at the hands of his military father. Sample recollection: a brutalised teenager and his brother are put in an Indonesian fighting pit with a master of pencak silat, a particularly deadly martial art. That’s some tough love.

“So this father made decisions that one may not agree with,” says O’Connor. “But as I always say, parenting is not a sport for perfectionists. The one thing I hope comes through is that every decision that father made was generated by love. And it was also generated by fear. He’s terrified of what can be a really cruel world for his child, and he doesn’t want that world to set expectations and limitations for his kid.”

Boys and their fathers

Father figures and squabbling brothers cast a pretty big shadow across O’Connor’s oeuvre. Pride and Glory (2008) cast Jon Voight as the head of an NYPD clan that included Edward Norton and Noah Emmerich; Warrior (2011) cast Nick Nolte as the old-soak dad of warring siblings Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton.

“I would be denying the truth if I didn’t acknowledge that it’s something that I gravitate toward,” he says. “It’s something that I’m trying to work out psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. There was a moment in rehearsals for the new film when I thought: I know I knew this. But I’m doing it again: two brothers, the dad. What the f**k is wrong with me?”

O’Connor’s father lived in Co Mayo for three years before relocating to New York. His son’s films frequently grapple with what it means to be Irish-American. (As we speak, O’Connor is westward bound to meet the Mayo family he has previously known only from photographs.)

“My father passed away a couple of years ago,” he says. “But before he did, at every family party, there was microphones and singing and bagpipes and accordions and dancing and booze. My wife laughs about it. We are all the Irish-American cliches. My dad played guitar. My sister was a professional lounge singer in New York.

"There were no boundaries with Dad. I saw a commercial for The French Connection on TV. Dad said, ‘Of course I’ll take you.’ I was six. He had me driving at 10.”

O’Connor began writing movies and plays at college, scoring an early success with The Bet (1992), a screenplay he wrote for the late Ted Demme. His debut feature three years later, Comfortably Numb, made little impression beyond the festival circuit, but 1999’s Tumbleweeds was a sensation at Sundance, where it won the Filmmakers’ Trophy. It also earned a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Janet McTeer and an Independent Spirit Award for Kimberly J Brown.

There were no fathers and sons in that one, I note.

Tumbleweeds is about me and my dad, too,” laughs O’Connor. “As a kid, I lived with my mother, and when things weren’t going well my dad would come get me and I’d live with him in motels.

“I didn’t travel miles like the people in Tumbleweeds did. But I understood what it was like to feel itinerant and rootless. I never felt at home anywhere, because I was bounced around a lot. I used the two women as a vessel. But I was drawing on my own childhood.”

Film delays

Tumbleweeds ought to have opened doors for O’Connor. But the vagaries of independent cinema have not always been kind. This past April we finally got to see Jane Got a Gun, which began shooting in 2013.There was much speculation when Pride and Glory was delayed, with both Edward Norton and Colin Farrell speaking out against the film’s distributor, New Line.

There was even more speculation around Warrior, a film released to a huge blast of critical fanfare and Oscar buzz, only to flounder in cinemas. Was the UFC’s refusal to cross-promote the MMA drama to blame? Was the marketing campaign misconceived?

“With Warrior, I had a whole plan for a trilogy,” sighs O’Connor. “But I knew by the Sunday after release it was over. After all that work. It was hurtful. There are lots of reasons why it didn’t perform at the box office. I had a lot of issues with how it was marketed. Nobody knew who Tommy [Hardy] and Joel [Edgerton] were back then. People in the industry did, but no one I grew up with did.

“So I didn’t think they should throw it out on 2,500 screens. I thought they needed to let this thing build slowly. Do a platform release. That didn’t happen.”

He gestures towards the window of his London hotel: “But I was on the red carpet here yesterday. And I can’t tell you how many people were coming up with Warrior posters and DVD covers. I’m still really proud of that movie.”

The Accountant opens on November 4th.

BEYOND RAIN MAN: AUTISM IN MOVIES


Chocolate (2008)

Thai martial arts film starring Yanin “Jeeja” Vismistananda as an autistic girl who copies what she sees in the Muay Thai school next door.

Best Kept Secret (2013)
A New Jersey special needs class prepares for graduation in Samantha Buck’s moving documentary.

Snowcake (2006)
Following the death of her daughter, an autistic woman with cleaning mania (Sigourney Weaver) needs someone to take out her garbage bags.

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