Kitty Green’s new film The Assistant is a searing and confrontational work that offers a stark look at a system that allows for continued abuse, told from the perspective of a ground-level employee. Though he’s never named, the high-level film executive at the film’s center is clearly intended to be an analog of Harvey Weinstein, but Green isn’t interested in making an easy cut-and-dry condemnation of a monstrous sexual abuser. Through her naturalistic sensibilities, she immerses the viewer in an intense and discomforting atmosphere where the only solace from psychological anguish is found in the tedium and repetition of monotonous office work. The Assistant is far from a feel-good film, but it doesn’t revel in miserablism; it’s quietly devastating and uncompromising, asking far more questions than it answers, and approaching the timely material from a unique perspective.
The narrative follows a day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), the titular assistant who is relatively new to the company and certainly low on the totem-pole – she’s the first to arrive in the morning, preparing coffee, printing out daily schedules, and tidying up for her boss and coworkers. This early portion emphasizes the banality of Jane’s everyday routine, but her isolation here serves as a harsh contrast to the eventual near-constant oppression she faces once her (nearly all male) coworkers arrive. Green approaches the content with an extremely delicate hand; instead of blunting or simplifying the film’s message by making Jane’s coworkers overly aggressive or having them constantly objectify her and other women, she sets the film up as a discomforting series of constant microaggressions. At no point in the film does anyone treat her with an ounce of respect – she’s constantly talked over, rarely does anyone make eye contact with her, and no one expresses honest gratitude for her work, which often goes well beyond her normal duties. In a scene that perfectly represents how she’s continuously marginalized, she starts to type an apology in an email, when unprompted, her male counterparts loom over her shoulder, reading what she’s written and telling her what to change, directing her exact phrasing as she quietly types their words as her own.
Beyond being a scathing portrait of passive aggressive sexism in modern America, specifically in the workforce, The Assistant focuses its crosshairs on the film industry, depicting the environment around a Weinstein-type executive as he belittles and oppresses his staff into acquiescence. Green brilliantly underlines the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, which many in close proximity to sexual abusers use as a subconscious defense mechanism, by keeping the executive entirely offscreen and unnamed. We hear his voice, mainly as he admonishes Jane over the phone for her “mistakes,” only to praise her performance later – a manipulative tactic intended to keep her complacent – but we never actually see him, just as Jane never sees his actual misconduct.
Adding a further layer of complexity that would be absent from a simpler version of this film, Green doesn’t entirely absolve Jane of her role in his horrific abuse of power. His sexual exploitation of young Hollywood hopefuls is only heavily implied, but plainly obvious to Jane whose daily duties include facilitating meetings with young women in hotel bars, lying to his suspicious wife about why he’s unavailable, and even in a brief scene early on, scrubbing the couch in his office. We feel the enormous stress she feels as she struggles to mentally distance herself from her surroundings, unable to feign even plausible deniability of her boss’s apparent misconduct, and the even more despairing fact that she has a direct hand in his continued abuse of power.
Her internalized conflict is palpable throughout The Assistant, largely due to Green’s careful approach to the content, but the film really hinges on Garner’s excellent performance at its center. She’s already shown a knack for playing complex characters, especially in her supporting role on the television series The Americans, but with The Assistant, she’s given a far more demanding role, since the camera is trained on her for most of the film. Her performance is almost entirely reactive, but she’s required to convey Jane’s inner anguish without being too transparently expressive, since her character is trying to repress her emotions throughout. It’s a brilliant balancing act that many performers couldn’t pull off in such a naturalistic way.
The Assistant certainly isn’t for most audiences, as it fully embraces the mundanity of office work and illustrates its weighty thematic material with a subtle, but confrontational and realistic approach. For how relentlessly taxing it is, it may as well qualify as psychological horror. It’s a punishing watch, but patient and adventurous fans of independent cinema shouldn’t let this one slip by. The Assistant is a demanding, unflinching, and intelligent film that presents an insular, but complex perspective of a corrupted system that condones abuse.