Julia Garner plays the put-upon assistant of an unnamed Hollywood mogul in this unsettling, timely drama of workplace abuse
Kitty Green’s intimate and restrained The Assistant has been dubbed “The Harvey Weinstein Movie,” though as a descriptor it does her timely, essential film a great disservice. The writer-director’s fiction debut (she previously helmed acclaimed documentary Casting JonBenet) does not address Weinstein directly, but focuses instead on the ways in which the powerful are able to cultivate a culture of silence without anybody noticing.
Jane (a fantastic Julia Garner) is a young graduate and aspiring producer four months into her role as an assistant to an influential New York film executive. Every day, she's the first in and last out of the office, responsible for coffees, lunches, travel plans, itineraries, calendars, and phone calls. She knows more details about her boss's life than her own, emphasised when she regrettably forgets her own dad’s birthday.
But who is this boss? One of the film's most striking elements is that we never actually see the man pulling the strings, though his presence is always felt. Set over the course of a single working day, Green finds focus on the executive’s empty office chair, his angry voice on the end of the phone line, and the looming shadow he leaves upon the office. The soundscapes and monotonous rhythm of the workplace bring anxiety to even the smallest of tasks; making coffee and organising plans can seem like performing heart surgery when you're as small and easily replaceable as Jane is made to feel.
The scariest thing is the accuracy of it all. Whilst Jane tries her best, she is tripped up constantly. Her male colleagues loom over her shoulder as she writes countless emails explaining how grateful she is for her job and the opportunity. She is told that the pressure she's put under will only make her “the best she can be,” a tired excuse for mistreatment. Garner’s performance here is measured and deeply impactful: she smiles gently, but we can see she's at breaking point every second of the day.
This sense of helplessness is emphasised, visually, by the muted production design. There is no colour or life here – only drab, grey, and distinctly mundane. The camera sits across a plain desk, with a plain desktop and cabinets. Utilising an ambient soundscape of keyboard-tapping and coffee-brewing in place of a traditional musical score, Green creates an environment of endless dread, where every ring of the phone feels like a bomb about to explode.
A pivotal and tension-heavy scene with a HR representative (played by Matthew Macfadyen) reveals just how ingrained these power structures are within the industry at large. Jane walks in, timid but brave, in order to voice her concerns. When she walks out again, she's been gaslit to such an extent she can't remember why she went in at all. There are structures in place to protect powerful people, Green is telling us, who interviewed over a hundred Hollywood assistants when researching for the movie, and those without power are simply kept quiet or replaced. By threatening the livelihood of employees like Jane, the industry forces them to become part of the problem by making them complicit.
Yet The Assistant spends the sum of its runtime reminding us that the removal of one bad man does not fix everything. We must examine the system, our own behaviours within it, and continue the conversation if we want to see change. Green's unflinching, finely observed film is an asset to the cause.Where to watch