Jane (Julia Garner) wakes up before the sun rises. She climbs into a black car which whisks her from Astoria to central Manhattan. She is the first in the office, which is coloured in dull grey, black and green tones, evoking a mundane kind of horror film. She turns the computers on, tidies up the desks and prepares the schedule for the important men higher up than her. Only afterwards does she find time to wolf down some cereal. She will take no lunch breaks and will be the last to leave.
It is this strong attention to detail throughout Kitty Green’s The Assistant — a piercing day-in-the-life story that shows how abuse can fester within a corporate environment — that makes it such a convincing work. By meticulously laying out the ways, both small and large, the system beats down entry-level employees into submission, Green has created a fascinating portrayal of how the patriarchy thrives under capitalist structures.
Jane works in the movie industry as an assistant to a powerful movie executive, who is never seen but often heard barking orders down the phone. Obviously modelled after Harvey Weinstein, we get a first sense of his transgressions when Jane picks up a women’s earring left in his office. This fact deeply affects her, but she tries to brush it off and get on with her day. Nonetheless, when a beautiful young waitress from Idaho turns up for an assistant job despite the fact she has no experience, and is put in a hotel, Jane decides that she should probably do something.
Julia Garner does a great job here with a non-showy performance that really comes across like somebody who actually works in this kind of office. From constantly tidying up the mess left by men to sending emails to answering the boss’s wife’s calls to filling in invoices to organising car trips to the airport and plane trips to LA., her job requires her to be one hundred things at once, making it easy for those at the top to take long “personal” breaks. She is so drained she even forgets to call her father on her birthday, the one sentimental note in an otherwise pitch-perfectly dark film.
The boss’s penchant for young women is discussed entirely in euphemisms, making it hard to bring this abuse into actual reality. Likewise, the other women in the office are world-weary: they make jokes about the boss’s behaviour, simply glad to hold onto their own jobs. It’s a similar struggle for the five-week-in assistant, who knows that she has a great opportunity here, but simply can’t justify the importance of her work with the way it allows such gross misconduct to occur.
The film offers few solutions, making it a difficult watch. At times, its particularly cynical realism feels more Eastern European in sentiment than strictly American, especially when Jane escalates her concerns to HR. The Assistant shows that the entire industry needs a systematic overhaul. Coming at a time when Harvey Weinstein himself might still get off jail-time, this change may still be a long time coming yet.
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A harrowing look at sexual misconduct at the workplace, The Assistant is sure to start a lot of conversations about how abuse can be normalised.
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