Directed by: Kitty Green
Written by: Kitty Green
Starring: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Noah Robbins
Looking back on scandals taking place in large companies often leave us asking the questions of how those situations could get to such a bad place. Surely, people knew what was going on and had to have spoken up about the abuse taking place. Hindsight has the benefit of a released truth but being in the moment makes the endpoint feel insurmountable. The Assistant gives us this singular perspective, as we witness how workplaces can fester with these toxic cultures and who’s willing to cover it up.
First one in and the last one out, Jane (Julia Garner) has been working as an assistant for a powerful Hollywood producer for five weeks now. She takes care of all of the monotonous tasks that must be done with little to no recognition, except for the moments she’s seen to have failed. Everyone knows of the indiscretions of this producer but will not speak up, which prompts Jane to muster the courage to do something.
Even in the way this film focuses on our protagonist for the entirety of the film, the audience is kept at arm’s length the entire time. One way it became adamantly clear is doing the research for this review and not even knowing the name of the woman we follow for the 85-minute runtime of this feature. Certainly not a negative in this sense, but only underlies the incredible impact of the story and how it takes away the humanity of Jane. It begins with her arriving at the New York office early in the morning even before the sun rises. She prepares the office space for the busy day to come. Slowly but surely all of the other assistants and workers file in for another day of work. Jane looks tired but she must go on.
The look on Jane’s eyes says it all as we progress through this day. She makes copies, prepares meals, and ensures everything runs on schedule. Everything she does gets accomplished with proficiency, which still does not protect her from the environment she works in. It took me by surprise that everything in this film took place in one day because so much occurs, but the lighting becomes the focal point of making the day feel endless. The fluorescent lights and the lack of natural light entering this office space make it feel like a dungeon with Jane just waiting for something awful to happen. It makes every interaction incredibly tense, especially when her phone or intercom makes a noise.
It’s made fairly clear, this story symbolizes the workplace culture established by convicted rapist and former Hollywood giant, Harvey Weinstein. His appearance in the film is sparse with only moments of him walking into his office. The only real physical imprint comes from the times he calls Jane, but the weight of his actions and powers fills each room. No one mentions him by name but rather through pronouns, as everyone knows what it means when they say “him.” The Assistant tells a simple story through the eyes of Jane, but it also opens up a larger discussion of how workplace harassment and abuse can take place.
The biggest moment occurs when Jane suspects of something happening and attempts to do the right thing as anyone should. Very quickly she learns why doing the right thing in this environment could cost you your career. These powerful men do not reach such high positions without knowing how to cover their tracks and Jane sees this lesson play out in front of her. All of the worrying and judgemental looks put a weight on her shoulders because everyone wants to get ahead in this business and at times you just have to make a deal with the devil. This sort of abuse gets overlooked and ignored because having the connections and the name to put on your resume make you stand out, and Hollywood is one of the places where it helps you the most.
Writer/director Kitty Green excellently puts together this feature with no score to carry us along. It does not tell us how to feel, but rather simply shows us a day in the life of Jane. The moments of where to cut scenes and how to open the next always leave an impact. No moment goes unnoticed no matter the monotonous nature of it with reason. This minimalistic approach to the story could be seen as anonymous direction, but certainly is not the case with the poignant camera placement and movement by the filmmaker.
The lack of score leaves the noise of copiers and office chatter to fill our ears as we witness the looks on Jane’s face, as she progresses through her day. Having the focus of the story rely on the face of the protagonist creates a large task for lead actor, Julia Garner and she steps up to the opportunity and then some. She tremendously puts up this face of insecurity amid a world where everyone else thinks she’s lucky for even having this position. At one point she’s told there are 400 resumes ready to be viewed if she’s unhappy with the work conditions. It’s the opportunity to excel in this industry, but at what cost? Garner uses such subtle facial movements with this performance, thus creating a protective emotional barrier from the rest of the workplace that cannot withstand her true feelings at times.
The experience of watching The Assistant will be equally infuriating as it is a brutal reminder of the excuses people tell themselves to remain in such a toxic environment. It certainly feels like a story for this moment, but this type of abusive atmosphere has existed most likely for the entirety of any workplace. Power allows those in possession of it to act with impunity if those working beneath believe the future benefits make up for the current torture. Simply put forth but yet harrowingly effective.