THE ASSISTANT (Kitty Green). 85 minutes. Opens Friday (February 7). See listing. Rating: NNNN
According to the credits, the name of the young woman we follow for the entirety of The Assistant is Jane. I don’t think I ever heard it spoken aloud certainly, no one ever uses it when addressing her. That would mean seeing her as a person, and that would be counterproductive. She’s the assistant. There was one before her, there will be another after her. That’s the way it works.
And while Jane is in every scene of The Assistant, Kitty Green’s devastating, exacting drama isn’t really about her. It’s about Harvey Weinstein, or, more specifically, the culture of complicity and intimidation he created around himself when he dominated the American indie film landscape.
Weinstein is never mentioned by name or even seen in the flesh, but there is no question that he’s the character credited only as “the boss,” and that the Lower Manhattan offices in which most of The Assistant takes place are meant to be those of Miramax Films at its high-flying, capital-spending zenith.
Jane is his assistant, one of at least three working at his company’s New York offices. There are offices in London and Los Angeles, too. A lot of people’s livelihoods depend on the boss doing his thing, and enabling him to do it however he sees fit.
Green focuses on Jane – who is played by Julia Garner, of The Americans and We Are What We Are – over a single day at work: tidying the office, printing schedules and new drafts of scripts, scheduling meetings, arranging lunches and meeting-room snacks and so forth. Before anyone else arrives, she takes care to clean a stain on the couch in her boss’s office. Later in the day, someone will advise a colleague not to sit there. It’s delivered as a quip, but everyone gets the meaning.
Jane’s job also includes catering to the boss’s whims, apologizing for imagined transgressions and doing her best to repress the knowledge that awful things are happening, and she’s helping them to happen.
Green’s precise, restrictive aesthetic traps us in the same suffocating space as her protagonist as she strains to interpret the tenor of conversations on the other side of an office wall, or watches her co-workers (both male and female) dismiss various aggressions and offences as the price of moving up the ladder, or tries, in a loaded conversation with the company’s HR rep (Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen), to blow the whistle on the predatory acts they both know are going on.
Driven by Garner’s nervous, empathetic performance, The Assistant is a grim, queasy experience. It doesn’t offer any sort of release, so I hesitate to recommend it as entertainment – but as an exploration of the collateral damage Weinstein left in his wake, it’s essential viewing.
And of course it isn’t just about Weinstein or Miramax there are situations like this in every industry, and people who are doing their best to pretend there aren’t.