Harvey Weinstein is never mentioned in “The Assistant.” The boss himself isn’t even seen, just heard over the phone — never named, just referred to as “him.” But the movie isn’t explicitly stating that it is not about Weinstein. After all, it’s set in New York at a film production company. It follows Jane, the namesake assistant, as she deals with him yelling at her, the parade of women coming through and checks made out to no name. It’s clear enough that it was inspired by him, but Kitty Green’s remarkable fiction debut isn’t pointing fingers at any one target. Rather, the power comes from that anonymity, the fact that it could be any studio, any office, any industry rank with abusive men.
A film like this requires a great performer at the center, and it finds one in Julia Garner. The young actress is perhaps best known for her small but memorable role on “The Americans,” as well as her Emmy winning turn on “Ozark.” We’re locked into the perspective of her character, Jane, from the very start of the film — when she gets into the car that takes her to work. She’s the “first one in, last one out,” as one character describes her; it’s notable that while there are two other (male) assistants working alongside her, she is the one that really makes the office work. It’s her that receives the angry call from the wife, followed by an angry call from him berating her and asking if she’s stupid (the sound design, which is excellent throughout, is most noticeable here, as Jane struggles to hear the caller on the other end while the chaos of the office continues around her.)
The other assistants just crack jokes on the sideline and jump in when she has to write the apology emails to her boss. Garner’s facial expressions convey countless hours of frustration, terror and annoyance in just a few minutes. In Green’s film, the assistants are made to bear the anger of those at the top, while the women are shoved into domestic functions like taking care of kids or cleaning up the boss’ office.
It’s while Jane is doing that cleaning that the plot (so much as there is one) kicks in, when she finds an earring near the couch. We see her cleaning god-knows-what off it, and later someone makes a joke about not sitting there. A girl comes by to pick it up, looking upset. Another girl comes by, having been hired by the boss with no prior experience, meeting with him in hotels. Because we’re so locked into Jane’s perspective, we only get what she gets — implications, small moments, overheard lines.
Whatever it is, it’s clear both to her and to us that it is inappropriate. The scene in which she tries to relay her concerns to an HR rep (played by “Succession’s” Matthew MacFayden) is the crux of the film and perhaps its most important moment. He listens to her list all these incidents and then asks if she really wants to go through with it. He reminds her that she just started, questions if she’s not a little jealous and suggests that she could have her own promising career derailed. MacFayden — so good playing the groveling incompetent — suddenly shifts to an almost menacing lack of care. We all imagine what we would do if confronted with this situation.
Jane probably did too. Green brings that scenario in, then drops in every single roadblock that keeps people from coming forward. Most importantly, Jane isn’t fully innocent, even as she tries to do the right thing; we sense some sort of annoyance, that jealousy at the attention this other girl is getting. All of this abuse Jane herself takes has to mean something. It has to be worth it, or else why would she still be here? Most cutting is the line MacFayden drops as she exits: “You’re not his type.” She’ll never get that kind of attention, so why stick her neck out for someone who’s not going to be there long?
Much of the discussion post-#MeToo has seemed to swirl around the bad men, the people at the top finally coming down. Films like “Bombshell” want to paint it as a classic good girls vs. bad guys story. “The Assistant” is a more honest one, and not just because of the seeming accuracy of its drab office environments and blending sound. By stranding us inside the head of its lead character, we’re forced to absorb every single insult thrown at her, latch on to any scrap of attention and piece together the various headshots and syringes.
Not only that, but through the other co-workers, we’re shown how an entire company is bound together to keep its bad man protected from any consequences. Above all, “The Assistant” is a document of complicity, a representation of the systemic forces that keep these men propped up. It’s a study in power dynamics, not just in Hollywood but in every office. It observes the moral conflict and then dares you to judge its heroine.