The Assistant is being marketed as a drama, but make no mistake: This is a horror movie. Kitty Green’s film about a production studio assistant whose days are long, whose responsibilities are immeasurable, and whose entire working life is defined by fear, toxicity, and invisibility is as riveting a film as Parasite or Sorry to Bother You in terms of its depiction of working-class struggle. Even if this film weren’t inspired by Harvey Weinstein and his reign of terror running The Weinstein Company, The Assistant would still be a horrendously tense, deeply unnerving viewing experience. With our knowledge of Weinstein’s monstrosity as an additional layer of context, The Assistant becomes something else, too: a portrait of conflicted complicity, and a challenge to our empathy.
The Assistant follows a day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner, proving that her Emmy win for Ozark was no fluke, which you would have known if you had watched her on The Americans), a recent college graduate who dreams of one day being a film producer. Until then, though, she has to suffer through her days as a junior assistant to the mercurial, often-absent head of a film studio, the kind of man who barely communicates with her, unless it is to berate her, shame her, twist her arm into performing forgiveness for any sort of slight or mistake. We only see one day of Jane’s life, but Green’s script and direction hint at the monotony. Get up many hours before dawn to get into a waiting car. Doze while commuting from a nondescript duplex in Astoria to a somewhat shabby, but nevertheless sprawling, block of buildings in Manhattan. First person in the office—turn on all the lights, wash the dishes left in the sink, tidy up. Order lunches for people, unpack deliveries, ensure that schedules are straight and appointments are made.
That’s all the normal assistant stuff, and yet it’s clear how demoralizing this workplace is—how thoroughly dehumanizing. People look at Jane like she’s an interloper, a trespasser; men wait for her to clean up their trash after a meeting and act like she’s wasting their time. Others ignore her in the kitchen, having their own conversation while she stands there washing dishes—and leaving their own dishes for her to wash, without a second glance. Eye contact is a no-no, and acknowledgment is absent. Jane is nameless and faceless unless she does something wrong, and then she is the greatest problem to have ever been employed at this company.
But that’s not all there is to Jane’s job, and incrementally, intentionally, Green shows us what else is expected of this young woman—but expected without being voiced. That’s where the complicit stuff comes in: How Jane has a bottle of cleaner that she takes into her boss’s office, that she sprays on his couch each morning, without a second thought. How she’s used to finding trinkets on his office floor—like a lost earring that a distraught woman has to come to the building to claim. How she knows to never accept phone calls from his wife, and if she has to, to never tell her where he is. And how the only people who ever seem to frequent the building’s waiting room are women—young women, all of a certain look, all of a certain type. “Of course I’m at the office,” she says to her mother when Jane calls her parents in a moment of distress, but that means a lot more than she’s letting on. And everyone in that building knows it, and no one in that building cares.
What Green addresses in The Assistant through her claustrophobic shot composition, bland indoor lighting, and refrain from showing Jane’s boss onscreen, and what Garner communicates in her tightly precise performance, is the weight of this type of work, of the endless demands, of the desperation and exhaustion that can define each day. Garner doesn’t exactly tip-toe around the office as her character, but Jane never draws attention to herself, either; it’s like she automatically knows, even though she’s only worked for the company for five weeks, how to make herself small. How to perform insignificance. You’re sympathetic to what she goes through, but the power of the film—and how discomfiting it is to watch—is also in all the ways you see Jane bend to her surroundings. There is a conscience here, but it’s slowly being sapped out of her, bit by bit: by the assistants who are her superiors, who coach her through writing a hyperbolic, performatively apologetic email to her boss; by the female executives, who joke about what happens in the boss’s office; and by a truly reprehensible HR manager played by Matthew Macfadyen, who brings Tom Wamsgans energy to his portrayal of a man loyal not to his fellow employees but to his company and to the man who signs his checks. I’m not exactly sure how this onetime Mr. Darcy became so excellent at playing morally reprehensible middle-management types, but Macfadyen is an exceptional villain here, a symptom of the infectious disease gripping this company and this industry.
“You can handle it,” someone says to Jane near the end of The Assistant, and not to get too political here (LOL, come on, you knew that I would), but that’s what late-stage capitalism has done to us, in particular to Millennials. Nearly all the signifiers of adulthood are impossible for us to achieve—homeownership, steady careers, retirement. We demand more from our workplaces, a greater work/life balance, but we’re getting less. Unemployment is down, but that doesn’t factor in underemployment. Wages are flat. Student-loan debt is insurmountable. And if someone told you that you had just one shot, would you capture it? At what personal cost? Those are the uncomfortable questions raised by The Assistant, and there are no easy answers here—no grand, galvanizing moment, no big speech. What Green’s film tells us about the collapse of personal will in the face of unimaginable cruelty and willful ignorance is bleak, sure, but almost like a challenge to us as viewers. What would we do if we were the assistant? And once you think you know the answer to that—be a little more honest with yourself. Does the answer stay the same?
The Assistant is now available on VOD.
Image sources (in order of posting): Bleecker Street, Bleecker Street, Bleecker Street