You never see Harvey Weinstein in this movie. He’s never even mentioned. Yet the presence of the disgraced Manhattan film mogul and accused sexual predator is all over The Assistant, a darkly compelling, forensically detailed shocker from Australian writer-director Kitty Green about one young woman’s experience working for a monster. Jane, played by Julia Garner, who is pitch-perfect in her willed restraint, has just graduated from Northwestern with honors, and dreams of producing when she signs on for the alleged glamor job as an assistant to the head of a film production company in Tribeca. Her duties literally define scut work — getting to the office first and leaving last while fielding calls, unpacking boxes, opening mail (there’s an invite from the White House), making reservations, scheduling meetings, lying to the boss’ angry wife, and blocking out looks of superior disdain from two male assistants (John Orsini and Noah Robbins), who advise Jane to quickly take the blame for any purported offense. The boss remains unseen, but we hear him barking orders, berating her on the phone or through emails, and then apologizing to massage her hurt feelings (“I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great”). Her duties — observed over one full day — also include scheduling hotel appointments with assorted women, picking up a female visitor’s stray earring on the floor of his office, and using gloves to clean revolting stains off his couch.
Why does Jane submit to such demeaning tasks? The film is less adept at answering that question then in setting up the toxic environment that enables employers to exploit employees without being called out for behavior that crosses the line into criminality. When Jane does visit HR, the rep, played as smarm personified by the ever-amazing Matthew Macfadyen of HBO’s Succession, tells her to push her concerns under the rug. Why risk a good job just because abasement and humiliation need to be part of her skill set? Besides, he adds conspiratorially, “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. You’re not his type.” And there you have it: the conspiracy of silence.
With her background in documentaries (Casting JonBenet, Ukraine Is Not a Brothel), Green was initially interested in crafting a doc about sexual misconduct on college campuses. But when the Weinstein accusations broke, she shifted her focus, interviewing people who worked for Hollywood studios and agencies. The Assistant, Green’s first narrative feature, uses her research to challenge a system that extends to workplaces everywhere, and keeps abusers in power and women under their thumb. That’s what makes her film such a stinging and resonant indictment for our time.
Green’s slow-burn style might not spell box-office windfall in a cinema era of short attention spans, but her artistry is indisputable. In detailing Jane’s soul-crushing daily routine, Green allows us to share the agony of her petrified complicity in the predatory contagion at its core. And she couldn’t have found a better collaborator than Garner. The twentysomething powerhouse, who won a well-deserved Emmy for the Netflix crime drama Ozark, is implosive dynamite as Jane. Green’s script doesn’t give Garner big speeches to express Jane’s inner feelings or a personal life that would allow her to vent to friends. In her compassionate portrait of a woman alone, Garner does it with her wounded, indelibly expressive eyes and the small gestures and shifts of posture that suggest her devastating sense of helplessness and the moral battles raging inside. Together, Garner and Green have built a potent provocation that stands as a defining snapshot of the MeToo era.