The Assistant (2020) Aug 10, 2020 13:20:03 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Aug 10, 2020 13:20:03 GMT -5
The Assistant (2020)
Directed by: Kitty Green
Directed by: Kitty Green
Jane (Julia Garner, center) is aided with an apology email by her coworkers in The Assistant.
Ever have one of those workdays where you swear that human existence as a whole would've benefited had you just spent the entire afternoon in bed? That's what The Assistant feels like for 86 disquieting minutes. A somber, almost clinical portrayal of what workplace harassment and mistreatment looks like, writer/director Kitty Green completely strips the film of its theatricality and creates something more frightening: reality.
From the jump, Green makes clear she isn't at all interested in developing, let alone humanizing, the men behind the cruel subjugation of women at the office. She's more interested in following one woman's navigation through it. That's why we have Jane (Julia Garner), the aptly named office assistant working at a film production company. It's hard not to see Miramax in this unnamed company. She's responsible for the menial grunt-work most souls at her workplace feel is beneath them. Her day starts before dawn and involves everything from printing overseas grosses, arranging meetings/flights, answering phones, and setting up conference rooms for big-wig meetings. The Assistant takes place over the course of a revelatory day for Jane.
For the first half of the film, we mostly observe Jane go through her day-to-day tasks with tedium occasionally strong enough to provide a window of empathy. Anyone who has ever landed an important job, or one they couldn't afford to lose, knows the feeling of stressing over the simplest tasks for fear of screwing up and landing in hot water. That's where Jane is at; unsupported by her male counterparts and spoken to entirely in demands or orders. Overtime, however, she begins to notice something isn't right, with a handful of young women frequently entering her boss' office and his wife calling imploring Jane to tell her where he is.
Things really come to a head in Jane's mind when a new intern from Idaho randomly shows up and gets a hotel-room in a palatial estate, where she will meet the boss. Jane really gets the sense something isn't right, but a trip to HR (Matthew Macfadyen in a strong, one-off scene) only does its part to instill more fear about her sense of job security and the protective nature of her abusive boss. Jane has few other options besides to persist on and do her job, which becomes increasingly difficult in a toxic environment where her boss is never seen yet every conversation revolves around him and his needs.
Green keeps the perspective almost exclusively first-person; we hear what Jane hears when she hears it. Conversations can be muffled when she's paying attention to other things, and we as viewers must assemble what is taking place throughout the office via audible context clues, such as the last few words of a sentence. This demands we be active viewers, for we wouldn't want information spoonfed to us so cleanly, would we? After all, it's rarely that way in real-life when it comes to working at a company and overtime finding cracks in the foundation. Green too imposes limits on the narrative and the revelations we get, yet it doesn't feel constraining. The Assistant is entirely subdued — robbed of theatricality like a mundane day of work.
Again, much like in our workplaces, things rarely, if ever, amount to an ultimatum via a screaming match with authority. Jane doesn't have an outburst where she storms into her boss' office with knives out ready to confront. Like most of us, she's too timid and lacks the security and status where her words matter. The head of HR informs her that causing such an issue would likely lead to her ousting, as there are hundreds of other hungry film students ready and willing to take her place with more applicants emerging by the hour. This among many other little moments gradually heighten the level of tension at play and turn this into a surprisingly taut film as a result.
Another significant aspect to this film are the elevator sequences. They're few and far between, but they reveal minute details of human behavior. Do you make eye contact? Do you let a woman on the elevator first, as if showing a touch of courtesy to the person in the small crowd about to board the freight is at the very least entitled to first entry? How do you start small-talk in a confined space with souls you barely know? Green doesn't answer these questions. She lets us fill in the blanks, and she's a smart filmmaker for allowing us that freedom.
When news of Harvey Weinstein's rampant history of sexual abuse came to light, Green was on Stanford's campus interviewing students about the very same topic. She went on to interview 100+ people connected to Miramax amid Weinstein's fall-out, and through that work came The Assistant, one of the best films of the year. It's a pleasure to see a film fixated on this topic that doesn't give us all the information in a linear fashion. It lacks the self-referential qualities of, say, Bombshell, where characters speak directly to the camera. The Assistant is careful and reliant on glimpses, mannerisms, and slowburn tension built around an impressionistic performance from the young Garner.
All that said, it's less a film you want to see and more of a film you need to see.
NOTE: The Assistant is now available to stream on Hulu with a subscription and a slew of other streaming services for a small fee.
NOTE II: Check out my review of The Assistant on my web-show Sleepless with Steve. Catch the show Wednesday evenings at 8pm CST at twitch.tv/sleeplesswithsteve!
Starring: Julia Garner, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, and Michael Macfayden. Directed by: Kitty Green.