James Clay // Film Critic
The monotony of working in an office creates a pressure cooker of emotions that are often surrounded by grey painted walls, peripheral noises of phones ringing, and passive-aggressive chatter from colleagues.
The bulk of Kitty Green’s THE ASSISTANT is spent observing a culture complicit on protecting an abusive boss of an independent film studio from coming under fire for an unknown claim. It’s easy, now, in the #MeToo era to see how this chilly atmosphere only breeds toxicity. THE ASSISTANT is the release valve that workplace harassment needs.
While it’s not particularly exciting, it’s a film that’s sadly necessary to watch. We get a day-in-the-life of Jane (Julia Garner), who, for the past five weeks, has been made privy to the private life of one of the most powerful movie executives. The window looking through Jane’s perspective acts as a universal tool, not just for those working in desirable industries but for any situation where power is abused.
Green’s film works as an inside baseball to the workings of the movie industry with discussions of test screenings and savvy terms, like “he’s in a personal” littered throughout the script. She has aspirations of her own to become a movie producer as she pays her dues, keeping her head down, getting coffee, and taking uncomfortable phone calls for the obvious stand-in for Harvey Weinstein. We never see the man in question only hear his snarling voice muttering expletives over the phone with distorted audio.
Jane can masterfully keep her resolve as she starts her workday before sunrise, all the way to sundown. She’s continually having work thrown at her as the office’s waste management details having to clean up messes made by other assistants while handling her duties. And yet, the two bozos working adjacent from her find a way to make mostly everything her fault. Gardner’s acting work is the mouthpiece for injustices that plague the workplace culture for so many women and men just trying to make an honest living.
Nothing about a scandal is ever explicitly mentioned, only hinted at. We never encounter the man in charge who hides behind a barrage of secretaries –– and yes, men who make this lifestyle possible. His presence is always felt even when the monstrous shadow is nowhere to be found. Green asks the audience to infer quite a bit dropping in little nuggets of eyebrow-raising antics that raise many questions and spine-tingling scoldings that are swept under the rug.
The most important thing she can do to fight for her job survival is to stay quiet. Jane is reminded by an HR agent (Matthew Macfadyen in a glorified cameo) that he has 400 resumes queued up just for her job alone when she approaches him about a possible indiscretion. He tries to alleviate some of her angst by saying, “Oh, don’t worry. You’re not his type.” In what is the best scene of the film, you can see the layers of protection actualized like guards standing over a palace they know is going to crumble.
Green’s steely approach won’t work for everybody. In reality, it doesn’t say much about the state of workplace culture, aside from being purely a peek inside. However, observing and listening leads to a change of beliefs and justice among impenetrable power. While it’s thin on plot, THE ASSISTANT finds relevance by being unfortunately timely.
Bleecker Street will release THE ASSISTANT in limited theatrical release on Friday, Feb. 14.