Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review: Ben Affleck has made one of the most fascinating comebacks over the last ten years. There was a time when he was box office poison, making one critical and box office bomb after another between 2003 and 2005. How can any one man survive Gigli, Paycheck, Surviving Christmas, the direct-to-video Man About Town? He changes gears… fast. Affleck turned his attention to supporting roles in movies for the next four years, as well as writing and directing. The second act of Affleck’s career started with Gone Baby Gone, his confident directorial debut, which led to The Town and the Oscar-winning Argo.
But even more impressive has been his commanding return to leading man status. After Argo, he made the wise choice to team up with David Fincher for the mesmerizing Gone Girl, perfectly cast as a cheating loser of a husband who’s suddenly thrust into the limelight. He’s of course Batman. And he made another great choice in 2016, taking an understated lead role in the compelling action drama, The Accountant, which, aside from one large stumble the story takes in the third act, is one terrific movie.
For most of the first hour, The Accountant is a drama, one that moves along at a slow but assured pace, Affleck fully in command of the reserved title character. I loved how director Gavin O’Connor, who made the equally fine Warrior, reveals the film’s secrets gradually, and builds on the characters enough that when they’re put in jeopardy, their lives really mean something.
O’Connor assembled an impressive ensemble of actors, all of whom add their own unique touches. Anna Kendrick has become such a welcome face in the movies, and she plays off Affleck well, especially when she’s trying to get him to open up to her. J.K. Simmons has a nice icy turn as a member of the Treasure Department, and Jon Bernthal is terrific as a mysterious hit-man who may have the biggest arc in the film of all. And then there’s John Lithgow, and Jeffrey Tambor, and Cynthia Addai-Robinson, fantastic actors who add emotional weight to its more standard scenes.
The film does get a little silly in the second half, especially when the action elements get played up and Affleck becomes first like a Jason Bourne replica, then like Arnold Schwarzenegger in freaking Commando. And one giant weakness in the film comes in an info dump flashback sequence near the end, when Simmons’ character tells a revealing story about his past. It stops the narrative cold for ten minutes, maybe longer, basically just to get some important information across to the audience. Watching this sequence, I couldn’t help thinking that there could have been a more dramatic way to present this material.
But even when it stumbles, The Accountant remains engaging and smart. The film reminded me of those kind of one-off fall thrillers we’d get in the 1990s, like The Game and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Not everything needs to be a franchise film. Not everything needs to be a tired sequel. There are thrills to be had in this movie, as well as big ideas, and even though it does devolve into routine action at times, it’s well worth seeing.
Watching Like a Writer: One element of storytelling I have struggled with in the past is writing flashbacks. They can often feel intrusive and unnecessary. And if they go on too long, the reader can get frustrated. The Accountant is a great film to discuss the use of flashback, because it handles it exactly right, and then sadly wrong. In the first half of the movie, we get quick glimpses of the accountant’s childhood, of how he became the way he is. They enhance the character, and are short enough not to disrupt the narrative flow. But then at the end, we get a never-ending series of flashbacks that go on way too long, and come from the mind of Simmons’ supporting character, not Affleck’s. This part took me right out of the film. Flashbacks are essential to almost every story, particularly novels, but if not handled right, they can bring more problems than solutions.
Exercise! Write down ideas for a flashback scene that could be added to your current work-in-progress. What would the flashback reveal? How could it potentially help and/or hurt your narrative?