Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Accountant

This short, forty-minute film (2001; dir. Ray McKinnon) features three male actors. Two of them portray brothers—the O’Dell brothers. One of the brothers stayed on the family farm, trying unsuccessfully to make a go of it. The other went to town to find his way—he’s dressed in a suit while his brother wears farm clothes. They’ve hired a financial consultant—an accountant—to assess the financial health of the farm. He drives up in an old jalopy, wears brogans and a severe, old fashioned suit. He has a ghastly nose and an ashen pallor. The first thing he asks is for a beer—not imported beer, which he scorns, but PBR. He drinks can after can, throwing each one down as he finishes. Then he asks for bourbon. He doesn’t use a calculator—he counts on his fingers and stamps his foot on the floor as he adds up the figures (“A man who won’t add his own numbers ain’t much of a man in my book.) He says that everything is in the numbers and can read the minute details of a man’s life in the numbers—the financial records--he leaves behind: “You can tell a lot about a person’s comins’ and goins’ if you know how to interpret the numbers.”

The accountant determines that the family farm is $277,452 in arrears and offers advice on how to save it: burn it down for insurance money. Make sure the dog and livestock die in the fire to avoid suspicion. Consider forfeiting a leg or two in an accident, again for insurance money. Consider murder.

As desperate as these measures are, the accountant’s goal is to save the family farm. That’s important above everything else—save the farm so that it can be passed down to the farmer’s two young sons. The message of this film is decidedly old school: pro-farm, anti-capitalism, anti-North, pro-agrarian. The accountant lectures his clients on how they’ve been victimized by “Hollywood, Wallstreet, Boston Market,” by “caricatures and stereotypes” of the South in such shows as “The Beverley Hillbillies” and “Dukes of Hazzard,” so that Southerners don’t even know what it means to be Southern anymore—one day, he warns, “one day your grandchildren will be eatin’ cornbread that’s sweet and drinkin’ ice tea that ain’t, and they’ll think that’s a Southern tradition.” When one of the brothers suggests that maybe they can sell the handwritten family logbook (passed down through five generations--“it's a tragedy”) as a book or a film, that maybe Billy Bob Thornton could make it into a movie, the accountant scoffs that Billy Bob’s not real, it’s just a Southern name like Jethro or Ellymae, and that he’s from the same state as Bill Clinton.

Donald Davidson could have written this script.

This film is a fable about the plight of the small-time farmer, the ravages of capitalism, the disappearance of Southern traditions and values. These are all well and good, and heartfelt in this film, but they’re not much more than platitudes—the film doesn’t give itself time to let them be anything else. In a longer film these pointed editorial lessons would weigh the story down. But The Accountant is just the right length.

This off-beat, whacky, droll, sad film is highly entertaining. Ray McKinnon as the accountant is an amazing character. The accountant may be the devil, or he may be the Lord, or he may be just a number cruncher. He does come up with a way to save the family farm, though it’s not what either of the brothers might have wanted.

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