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The Secret Genius of Ben Affleck

The leading man finally gets to play smart in ‘The Accountant’

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

When’s the last time Ben Affleck got to look smart? Or be smart, while being himself, on camera?

Maybe you’d count Argo, wherein Affleck, who also directed, stars as the CIA agent Tony Mendez, assigned to extract a group of American diplomats from Tehran amid a hostage crisis. Smart guy, smart look: chin dimple appropriately shrouded in shadow, expression professionally stone-blank, hair speckled with just the right amount of dignified pepper gray — a great costume. But not Ben, not really. A little too serious. In Gone Girl he was smart-ish as the hapless Nick Dunne, more wily than obviously intelligent, which was apparently true to life. Director David Fincher would later allude to Affleck’s low-key sneaky, doggish ways, saying “there’s a kind of indirectness” to how Affleck can sneak a peek at his texts, for example, “probably because he’s so duplicitous.” Not the kind of smart I had in mind. Also worth considering is Affleck’s recent turn as Bruce Wayne — a.k.a. Batfleck — but that role is more moneyed brawn than outright brains, even as upcoming editions promise to be more clever. And while a Terrence Malick script undoubtedly takes a master’s degree to parse, it’s hard to tell whether Affleck’s performance in To the Wonder was smartly understated rather than just handsomely lost.

Affleck hasn’t really gotten to play smart yet this century, and it’s a shame. That alone, and not much else, justifies Gavin O’Connor’s fun but strange new action thriller, The Accountant. Almost 20 years after playing Chuckie Sullivan in Good Will Hunting, with a wide range of roles in between (and even before, in movies like Chasing Amy), it seems Affleck still can’t shake the likable meatheadedness his face affords. Maybe it’s his resting bitch face, or his solid build and dependable jawline. For many of us, he’s still a Plain White Dude™, perfect for The Town, or for the supporting cast of Dazed and Confused.

And yet his genius lies in his ability to defy our expectations in a movie like The Accountant — to trouble our sense of who we think he is when the stakes feel relatively low. His character, Christian Wolff, is a whiz kid hired to track missing money for powerful criminal organizations like the Sinaloa cartel. More importantly, he’s an excuse for the world to finally see Affleck exploited for every nook of his range, given a heightened guise of intelligence that exposes what we want and expect out of him.

Gone, nowadays, is the untroubled perception of Affleck as the working-class hero of glossy Hollywood cinema. He’s grown to be more than the stolid dependability of his face, and The Accountant, for all of its lumpy contradictions, is notable in its eagerness to prove that to us. It’s a movie full of mysteries, including who Affleck’s character is and how he got to be the amalgam of fighter and savant he’s become. Seemingly less mysterious, but thrown into question by the movie, is who Affleck himself is — or why it’s taken him so long to get such a glowering octopus of a role, its hand in every genre.

As played by Affleck, Wolff is the kind of nerd-slash-criminal to choose aliases based on the great math wizards: Carl Friedrich Gauss, the so-called “Prince of Mathematics,” and Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who was speculated to have had Asperger’s syndrome, as Affleck’s character does. A less sensitive actor might have seen an opportunity to transform this role into something much simpler and more humorless, a Rain Man action figure. That’s sort of what Wolff adds up to in the end: a math wizard plus impeccable sharpshooter who must finish any puzzle he starts. But as in Gone Girl and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, roles that play up his ability to be distinctively anonymous, Affleck here riffs on our expectations, relishing the many opportunities to play up Wolff’s tics and odd mannerisms — blowing and wiggling his fingers before any serious task like a Vegas denizen stroking his luck — but tingeing it all with levity and even, at times, sincere rage.

One of the centerpieces of The Accountant is the solving of a math problem — the case at the center of the movie, involving money stolen from a biotech company over 15 years — that becomes a John Nash–esque montage with lots of numerical whispering, clear bulletin boards (he’s writing on the office windows, Beautiful Mind–style), and what briefly looks like a weird dance fit as he stumbles into a solution. The scene is set to a rousing string-and-piano score — the kind usually used to push Apple products.

That O’Connor tries to sell us on the idea of Affleck as a beautiful, elegant thinking machine in some moments, and as a mechanically reflexive, highly sophisticated killer in others, is the charm, and utter folly, of this movie. It’s a tribute to Affleck’s own ability as an actor that he not only pulls it off, but gives the sense that he’s in on the joke — that when he’s on the verge of solving a Fields Medal–winning formula, he looks a little ridiculous. Physically, anyway. As a performance, it’s weirdly marvelous. Affleck pours himself into it with a tangible but not obvious good humor, instilling the character with gentle earnestness.

The movie itself is less of an outright success, but as a misshapen vehicle for its star, I can’t help but marvel at it a little. It’s a potent, pleasurable reminder of the many faces of Affleck, forever insistent that he’s more than the actor we think he is.