THE ASSISTANT ½
2020, R, 85 mins.
Julia Garner as Jane / Matthew MacFadyen as Wilcock / Dagmara Domińczyk as Ellen / Kristine Froseth as Sienna / Makenzie Leigh as RubyWritten 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.
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.
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
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.