Harvey Weinstein’s name is never mentioned in The Assistant, Kitty Green’s narrative feature debut, but his presence permeates every frame. The timing of the film’s release, with the impending trial and recent fall from grace of one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, is inadvertently incendiary. And yet there is nothing sensational within the film itself, which looks and feels like a slow-burning minimalist horror film. The visceral payoff is not in blood and gore but in the creeping existential dread felt by any female viewer forced to perform demeaning tasks or witness abusive behavior from a narcissistic male boss.
Jane (Julia Garner, who won an Emmy for Ozark) begins her day with an Uber ride before the sun comes up to the nondescript Manhattan office building where she works. It’s Monday and we learn she worked all weekend there, too. Jane shares an office with two unnamed junior assistants (Noah Robbins and Jonny Orsini) who are sometimes supportive and friendly, sometimes devious and petty. Their day centers on “his schedule” which is repeatedly derailed by his whims, including lingering at a hotel room with a young aspiring actress who’s hired as a new assistant.
Jane’s workday follows a quiet, nondescript rhythm: making copies, receiving packages, arranging travel and making sure water bottles and glasses are put out for meetings. But within the first five minutes we get a sense of some of her job’s unsavory tasks: picking up a stray gold earring on the floor, disposing of used hypodermic needles, and scrubbing the grey microfiber couch of unnamed bodily fluids. Jane’s pale pink blouse seems the only spot of color in this drab environment, a signifier of her youth, femininity and vulnerability, but also a nod to the color chosen as a rallying cry of the Trump era, in which men like Weinstein find themselves held up to stronger scrutiny.
Young beautiful women arrive at the office like clockwork, and Jane prints out stacks of color headshots. She also has moments of quiet and solitude within the dimly lit office, and the lack of music seems an ironic counterpoint to the vaunted glamour and decadence of her boss’s existence. Garner, whose career I’ve been following since her debut in Martha Marcy May Marlene, inhabits her role with quiet intensity, embodying Jane’s struggle as a seemingly endless cycle of debasements and apologies.
It’s not just the boss who treats Jane disrespectfully. The other assistants seem to try and sabotage her, and two women who walk in on Jane washing dishes in the break room carry on with their conversation, ignoring her presence and leaving their dishes for her to wash, too. The implication is hard to ignore. When Jane finally reaches a breaking point, she goes to talk to a human resources representative, played by Matthew Macfadyen (Succession). In a stunning scene that escalates slowly, Jane is made to feel as if her concern for the young women being manipulated and abused is somehow misplaced. Macfadyen, best known as Mister Darcy to Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth, is letter-perfect as a man whose job is to maintain an evil status quo. This climactic scene is the only moment where Jane fights back, only to find the entire system is impenetrable.