Synopsis: Just a normal day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), a beleaguered admin assistant employed at a major film production company. Photocopying. Making calls. Arranging the schedule of her mogul boss. Picking earrings off the floor. Writing blank cheques. Arranging a hotel room for a beautiful new assistant who just arrived from Iowa. And slowly, the puzzle pieces in Jane’s mind start to cohere into a less than pretty picture.
1. The Assistant never says his name or shows his face. He is a voice over the phone berating subordinates for perceived incompetence. He is a bulky silhouette who hushes an entire room with his presence. He is a closed door, behind which any number of terrible things might be happening. It is of course, impossible to make a movie about sexual misconduct in the film industry without the shadow of Harvey Weinstein hanging over it. To the immense credit of writer/director Kitty Green, The Assistant dramatises this non-diegetic spectre as a diegetic absence, or in less pretentious language – we never see ‘the boss’ because he is not the point. The Assistant is a searing indictment not of one man, but of an entire system of collusion, compliance and complicity that allowed that one man (and many, many more) to get away with monstrous crimes for decades. It is a measured slow burn of a movie, artfully crafted to the nth degree to convey to the viewer exactly what being in such a toxic environment is like, to the point where even the best of us may be worn down and choose to submit instead of fighting back.
2. Much of The Assistant‘s power comes from Julia Garner’s spectacular performance, which is even more impressive by how she has to perform sans the sort of Oscar-reel fireworks we generally expect from good Acting. (1) Jane exists as the person at the bottom of the totem pole, in a position where emoting is a privilege and not a right. The boss gets to sneer and bark and throw tantrums, but the most the person sitting outside his door can afford is a furtive phone conversation with her mother. Garner has to play a character constantly repressing her own emotions, and she plays it to the hilt. Yet the film never spares Jane from its own unblinking gaze. After all, is she not also a part of this terrible machine? Garner’s performance thus has to match this ambiguity, and she rises to the occasion, portraying the character’s muddled mix of emotions – yes, there is righteous anger and indignation, but there is also the fear of self-preservation, an ambitious streak, joy at being praised by the boss for doing a good job, and even a little jealousy at how ‘easily’ these beautiful women skip the barrage of menial humiliations she has to face on a daily basis. It is a quiet, understated performance whose every action speaks untold volumes, and is almost certainly (assuming that movies still come out) one of the best of the year.
3. Interestingly, the first third or so of The Assistant serves as a fantastic look at the life of a low-rung office employee. There would be much to recommend about the film even if it was just this, thanks to its docu-realistic dissection of the menial drudgery involved in entry-level jobs. I alternated between shuddering and snickering my way through this part, thanks to Green’s minute attention to detail bringing me back to a life of photocopying, binding, and schedule arranging. In many ways, this section was like a much (much, much, muuuuuuuuch) shorter 21st century version of Jeanne Dielman, with the alienating routines of domesticity replaced with the alienating routines of corporate labour. This is also a canny setup for how institutionalised the structures in place to cover up the harassment are – it is all part of the corporate system that Jane exists in, where arranging for a car to bring the boss to the airport on time co-exists with booking a hotel room for his latest conquest.
4. Also fantastic – the drips of information that Green gives us on everyone else. The Assistant hews very closely to Jane’s point-of-view, but it does provide more than a few hints on the culpability of everyone else, from the guffawing bro-execs who joke about not sitting on the couch to the female exec who sneers that the actress in the boss’s room will ‘get more out of it than he does’ to Jane’s fellow assistants who are so well-versed in the boss’s patterns that they can coach her on how to write an apology email each time she ‘fails’ to cover up his indiscretions. This all leads to the single best scene in the film, a HR meeting from hell where Jane is gaslighted and railroaded into covering for her boss. It’s a masterclass in manipulation, made scarier by the fact that it’s based on real life – the carrot-and-stick tactic of threatening termination and promising promotion, the shooting down of any evidence as ‘purely circumstantial’, the insinuation that Jane is simply jealous of other women, and ending with a line that cuts right to the bone, simultaneously confirming Jane’s suspicions and dismissing her as a person.
5. There is also much to praise about the cinematography and shot selection. This is a film that deliberately aims to leech the glamour out of the movie industry, and the cinematography achieves that in spades. The colour palette is drab and grey, with bland cubicles in the washed-out light of New York in winter. Shots of Jane always feel intrusive and voyeuristic, particularly as Green stages her camera in candid moments to seem as though it is leering down Garner’s blouse or at her rear end, thus involving the viewer further in the system of culpability. The closed windows and tight frames also create an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, dramatising the way that Jane is hemmed it in all fronts and showing how powerless she is.
6. The film is not perfect by any means. It’s a little too slight, clocking in at a very slim 87 minutes. Furthermore, having the film be nothing more than a cavalcade of ritual humiliation does end up exhausting. I’m not saying that Jane needed her ‘you go girl’ moment where she tore down the patriarchy and shit, but perhaps the darkness might have been more oppressive if there had been just a little light at some point. Still, The Assistant is a highly recommended movie if you are willing to be lulled by its rhythms. It is one of those movies where very little happens, and that’s the point. All the terrible things that go on just out of your field of vision – those are just part and parcel of a normal day. Undergirded by Garner’s superlative performance and Kitty Green’s sharp, subtle writing and direction, The Assistant sketches a portrait of a world built to serve the whims and fancies of the powerful, built on the turned-backs and closed-eyes of an entire system designed to hide the abuse.