The Assistant Review
While we never see – let alone hear the name of – the Hollywood mogul Jane (Julia Garner) works for in The Assistant, the Harvey Weinstein-shaped elephant in the room is impossible to miss. Originally scheduled to arrive in cinemas this month before being forced over to a VOD release, Kitty Green’s minimal, but insightful, drama arrives only a couple of months after Weinstein was finally sent to jail for his crimes. The producer dominating the lives of everyone working in his offices is only ever referred to as “He” but the implication of who this film is about, and the many others he represents, is never in any doubt.
Jane’s day starts early - earlier than anyone else in the office - and the vast majority of people in New York. After a weekend spent working we join her on a Monday morning as she is collected by a company driver and taken to the office. She’s usually the first one to arrive and one of the last to leave, spending much of the day treated as the office dogsbody, doing all the crappy jobs often foisted upon executive assistants. Whether it’s printing out and collating documents while proofreading scripts, or washing dishes, looking after the boss' kids and dealing with irate ex-wives on the phone, Jane barely has time to take a bite to eat, with everything done in service of climbing the ladder in hope of one day becoming a producer. Later she’s told the job has put her on a “fast track” to achieve those ambitions, but it’s the soul-destroying journey to get there that will eventually hollow out her dreams.
The silent complicity that infects every corner of Green’s film approaches levels of near suffocation the longer we spend alongside Jane, so it is something of a relief the runtime only lasts for 80 minutes. She has been working as the producer’s office assistant for five weeks but is already well-aware of boss' reputation with young women. We also witness the knife-edge temperament that has everyone in the office clinging to their jobs for dear life. When tricked by a colleague into trying to placate the boss’ furious ex-wife on the phone, she is powerless to stop her hanging up in anger. Almost immediately "He" calls into the office to give Jane a harsh dressing down, instructing her to send an humiliating email apology. Two male colleagues working close by are reluctant to get involved, as it’s an experience they know only too well, offering only mealy-mouthed advice on how to word the email and an awkward ‘chin-up’ pat on the back.
Green’s previous two films have been in the documentary realm and she carries some of that aesthetic across into her first fictional feature. The drained colours and minimal camera movement ground this firmly in the real world, with Garner’s face remaining front and centre of almost every shot. Along with the film’s non-descriptive title and template-style name of its protagonist, we quickly become the substitute for Jane and her internalised emotions. She is often framed within doorways, hallways and condensed rooms, and we feel the pressure of grinding through the day as she does.
But is the film really about Jane, or another ‘assistant’ that joins the office in the middle of the day? Sienna (Kristine Froseth) is being put up in an expensive hotel by the producer, having been lured from her waitress job in Boise, Idaho, to live in New York. While she is given a nominal role in the office, Jane is tasked with half-heartedly showing her the ropes, with everyone aware of the real reason she's here. And she isn't the first. It leads to a pivotal – and the film’s best – scene between HR head Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen) and Jane who tries to raise the alarm about Ruby’s arrival. It’s a battle lost from the start, as Wilcock slowly picks holes in her argument, safe in the knowledge what she is saying is true but impossible to act upon while still keeping Jane on the payroll. The interplay between the two actors is pitch-perfect, escalating the tension and dread of working in such a toxic atmosphere. "You don't have anything to worry about, you're not his type," Wilcock tells her as she leaves the room.
Garner is superb in her role, revealing her emotions with the smallest of eye or mouth movements, her body language caught up in near-constant uncertainty. Almost everything she feels has to be internalised and Garner shows us that inner world with a deeply-nuanced performance. Just five weeks into her new job and the reality of the career that lies in wait barely seems worth it any more. Yet her parents get another story, one that won’t disappoint them, anyway. We see a small, but telling, insight into her personal life after her heavy workload makes her forget to call her father on his birthday. They hear she’s slowly working her way up the industry ladder towards her dreams, but she can’t bring herself to tell them the truth and feel like she’s let them down.
The Assistant is a must see, not just because it relates to the behaviour of everyone within the workplace, but because it does so without the need to preach. But at the same time, it must be said viewers may go in with slightly different expectations based solely on the trailer, which pitches it as a thriller (which it kind of is, but really isn't). It’s understandable why it is being marketed that way because a carefully-paced drama like this would only have been seen by so many in cinemas. The direct to VOD approach will hopefully ensure it instantly hits a bigger audience and cause quite a few uncomfortable watches for those a little too familiar with these sort of toxic environments.
The Assistant arrives on VOD in the UK from May 1.