A breathtakingly bleak, macabre mood piece about all-too-common degradation, The Assistant is the first film of 2020 to attempt something more than mere distraction. It’s also among the few of any vintage that approaches workplace harassment and sexual assault with such a mercilessly anthropological eye.
Writer-director Kitty Green, an Australian documentarian making her fictional-film debut, casts a nigh-Romanian pall over a distinctly American story about a menacing, manipulative movie-studio master of the universe. The parallels to Harvey Weinstein are unmistakable and the timing to ongoing deliberations in his rape trial uncanny. But don’t mistake that for an exploitatively empty shell or the finger-wagging flimsiness of Bombshell. (Wisely, The Assistant doesn’t try to achieve visual fidelity to its proxy pig — never showing his face and only lending him the voice of veteran character actor Jay O. Sanders in a few crucial moments.)
In other words: Green doesn’t waste time trying to make us wonder what’s really going on or how bad it might be. Heaven help us, we know how bad it is. These days, the awareness of venal rot and our visceral revulsion with it— microcosms of the macro havoc so many men wreak — resides in our bones now. The Assistant wonders what the hell we are going to do about it, if we can do anything. Green delivers a captivating, convincing condemnation of how complacency helps cultivate this behavior, but also a sobering reminder of the difficulty in liberating yourself from systems with no shortage of limitations or intimidations.
The Assistant also represents a stunning, starring-role showcase for Julia Garner, stellar in her supporting turns on FX’s The Americans and her Emmy-winning role on Ozark. She plays Jane, the lowest-rung assistant in the studio executive’s New York office. Hers is the first-in, last-out slot — beating the sun to set up the office just so and burning midnight oil as the world revolves around her boss. In rare moments where we, and Jane, see the city that doesn’t sleep, cinematographer Michael Latham gives it the cold, clinical hue of an oppressive waking nightmare.
We also spend enough time with Jane alone during these wee hours that by the time we meet the rest of her colleagues, it feels like she’s already on her second shift. (One shrewd motif: A silent judgment or urgent task that interrupts Jane whenever she treats herself to a sugary snack.) Her co-workers’ personalities range from dunderheaded passivity to open hostility. Leslie Shatz’s sound design traps us in the labyrinth with Jane, every errant machine beep or appliance whir a Pavlovian response of panic. Green’s scene-setting precision and directorial discipline imprints the office hierarchy. The cast uses subtle body language to illustrate how people are duped or desensitized to the gangrenous goings-on.
Any respect Jane receives is rooted in how she’s relieved her counterparts (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) of the most perilous tasks — like easing the executive’s wife as he’s doing god knows what to wide-eyed starlets. (They also know how to help her write platitudinal emails to placate the boss when that doesn’t go well, but even that advice is just ass-covering.)
After one such ingenue gets an assistant job in exchange for silence — and, presumably, continued sexual servitude — Jane has a crisis of conscience and ventures forth into … the underworld that is human resources.
Here, like In Fabric without the devilish levity, The Assistant brings Jane to fresh-hell dehumanization at the hands of Wilcock, the head of HR. He’s played by Matthew Macfadyen of HBO’s Succession, who is outstanding as both a weaselly equivocator for the company line and the delivery man for Green’s deflation of a lesser film’s reliance on truth to power: The people you work for would have your job posted before the ink dried on your autopsy, and they sure as hell are not your friends.
Of course, all of this would lack the necessary wallop were Garner to flinch even slightly from an unyielding view into how Jane’s dignity is decimated. She perfectly calibrates the restraint and rage, particularly in a scene where she seems to acclimate herself to the loathsome behavior surrounding her. But what’s obscured is the clarity of what comes next for Jane, and it’s fitting that the film’s climactic scene finds her fixating on a blur in a nearby window.
The Assistant is a film that burrows its way under your skin, one malevolent millimeter at a time — a tough, but worthwhile, watch with a slow and quiet penetration that’s no less brutal. Its iciest dagger comes in the final moments after Jane’s banal birthday conversation with her father. We think only of the eventual confrontation weeks, months or maybe even years down the line: What happened to Jane? What was she hiding? Why didn’t she do something? No easy answers to be found in an unshakable conclusion to an appropriately unsparing film.