A film review by Craig J. Koban May 10, 2020

THE ASSISTANT jjj

2020, R, 85 mins.

Julia Garner as Jane  /  Matthew MacFadyen as Wilcock  /  Dagmara Domińczyk as Ellen  /  Kristine Froseth as Sienna  /  Makenzie Leigh as Ruby

Written and directed by Kitty Green

THE ASSISTANT contains a premise that's so deceptively simple, yet speaks relative volumes about nightmarish work environments, male toxicity, and the distressing struggles that young up and coming women face while trying to climb the corporate ladder.  

It's the product of Kitty Green, making her dramatic feature film directorial debut, who spent a better part of a year interviewing women that once worked for Harvey Weinstein, only later to expand her interviews beyond these people.  It would be easy to label THE ASSISTANT as a scathing critique of the countless women that were taken advantage of by a predatory movie mogul, but the film isn't specifically about Weinstein (to Green's point, her story represents a composite of thousands of stories from women).  THE ASSISTANT focuses squarely on one lone women's 24 hour ordeal working with a shady production company that's essentially an unhealthily and unethically run boy's club.  And it's one of 2020's most unnerving to endure films. 

Green's drama also serves as a wondrous highlight reel for lead actress Julia Garner (the very deserving Emmy winner for Netflix's super series OZARK).  She plays Jane, a young and ambitious New York graduate that has high aspirations of becoming an all powerful movie producer one day.  She realizes, though, that this will not come overnight and will require her to start at the bottom...like...the absolute bottom.  She takes a lowly entry level job for a production company run by what appears to be an extremely influential and prominent man in the industry (we never see his face, nor is he given a name...more on this in a bit).  Jane is the only women in the tiny office, partnered up with two other young men (John Orsini and Noah Robbins), but she doesn't strike up much of a personal relationship with her co-assistants.  For the most part, Jane tries to stay clear of them and deals with her job at hand, which is tending to every single task - both meaningful and inconsequential - that her boss asks of her.  The first half of THE ASSISTANT is completely devoted to the soul crushing monotony of Jane's daily life working at this office.  It involves early walk-up calls, coffee errands, menial faxing and copying duties, taking calls, and so forth.  She's even called upon to clean the questionable stains that she finds on her boss' office sofa. 

 

 

Jane's essentially a loner here.  Her two male colleagues, both of whom have been at the company longer, act like they care about Jane's well-being and future, but that's superficial at best, as they usually regard her as a distraction in the office environment.  Despite all of this, Jane tries to keep her chin up to the best of her abilities, but things start to veer off course for her into some uncomfortable work challenges, like, for example, having to field the calls of her boss' wife, who seems to be extremely concerned about her husband's nightly whereabouts. Then a new assistant arrives in the form of Sienna (Kristine Froseth), a former waitress from Idaho that has come to the big city looking for a what she perceives is a glamorous new position with this company.  Jane's breaking point comes when she's asked to find a posh hotel for this newbie to stay at, which she has justifiable concerns is being used for an elicit rendezvous between this greenhorn and her wife-cheating boss.  When she's had just about enough of her work environment and employer's shady moral compass, Jane decides to take action and speak to HR, in what has to be one of the most quietly distressing scenes of any film from this year. 

Jane meets up with an HR rep named Wilcock (a sensationally slimy Mathew Macfadyen), who initially comes off like a calm spoken active listener that wants to get down to the bottom of Jane's legitimate concerns.  She's clearly distressed and uncomfortable, but courageously commits herself to letting Wilcock know of her issues in the office and desire to file a damning claim against her boss.  Jane is rightful in thinking that her place of employment is one that routinely crosses the line taste and decorum on a daily basis.  The interview absolutely snowballs from here.  Wilcock listens at first, but then gets more aggressive with his questions and, in turn, deflections of Jane's accusations.  The longer this interview progresses the more petty he thinks her complaints are.  He then devolves into petty bullying, emphatically telling the increasingly upset Jane that she should be happy to have her job and that her future could be in jeopardy with her claims.  The final hammer strike to Jane's esteem and spirits comes when Wilcock pathetically deadpans, "I don't think you have anything to worry about.  You're not his type." 

I mentioned before that the boss in question is never shown.  In a wise move, Green never validates this cretin's presence by allowing him to have any tangible screen time.  He's this ethereal, yet omnipotent entity in his company that has the power to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and to whomever he wants.  We do hear his voice, usually from outside of the room or on the phone.  He's always referred to as simply "he" throughout the picture.  The intention here by Green is brilliantly evocative.  She's trying to capture and suggest what a scary level of intimidating influence that this man has over his employees.  He's like a threat in a creature feature whose presence can always be felt, yet who's rarely ever seen, leading to a build up of anxiety inducing dread in the characters.  Green's choices here work wonders to relay the unsavory and claustrophobic pickle of a situation that Jane experiences in the story, which, no doubt, has obviously been experienced by countless other women in many industries. 

This also allows Green to make the woman here the true epicenter of interest.  This is her story, not the mogul's.  THE ASSISTANT is all about cementing us within Jane's problematic and borderline nightmare inducing work life, one that she desperately wants to out the abusers in power that continue to profit and stay in a place of high prominence regardless of any commonly known indiscretion.  I think this is what precisely makes Green's film so intimately rendered, yet chilling to the bone to watch.  Clearly, THE ASSISTANT is a contemptuous indictment of male dominated work culture, one that frequently props up harassment and ongoing sexual oppression of women.  Coming after the Weinstein scandal fallout, it couldn't be any more timely.  Most crucially, this film is not about the methodical abusers in power, but rather about the subjugated.  The recent and similar themed BOMBSHELL (quite good in its own way) dealt a lot with the power players (in its case, Roger Ailes at Fox), but I vastly appreciated THE ASSISTANT's more subtle and insular nature.  This film accurately and rightfully reminds viewers that the victims should be the one's positioned up front and center.  Their stories of hardship are the ones that matter. 

Some have complained about the elephantine slow-burn approach that Green uses here.  I understand that, and I certainly felt it early on.  THE ASSISTANT takes a while to get off the ground and I can see those with shorter attention spans checking out early.  Even though the film does sometimes feel longer than its scant 85 minutes (leading to some early forward momentum issues), THE ASSISTANT nevertheless does an exemplary job of immersing us in the mind numbingly trivial and not so trivial things that Jane has to undergo minute-by-minute during a typical day, often to an emotional breaking point.  Garner is so sensationally well cast here and gives an emotionally potent, yet internalized performance of depth and buried trauma.  Like the recently released NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS (another superb drama told exclusively from the young female perspective), Green doesn't pepper Jane with much in the way of dialogue, of monologues, or long winded conversations.  We witness the torture of this beleaguered women in tight facial close-ups.  That's all we need to understand her pain and uncertainties.  THE ASSISTANT seems to end abruptly without much in the way of answers, leaving things kind of hauntingly ambiguous.  Maybe that's because there are just no easy answers or solutions for Jane.  She's entrenched in a brutal workplace vortex of masochistic control politics, and to escape it would mean career destruction.  What a shame.  THE ASSISTANT is not an easy film to digest, but it's masterfully economic filmmaking at shedding proper light on some of the real corrupt workplace evils of the world and why the female victims can't be rendered invisible anymore.  

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