What could go wrong on a regular day of work at the office? Unless it’s not a day like the others in a job that wasn’t exactly normal as you might think initially. For Jane (Julia Garner), working as an assistant for a film production company in New York is a tremendous opportunity. Not to mention she reports directly to the head of the company, the man who has the final word on everything. To fulfill her obligations, Jane has given up her weekends, is the first to come to the office and the last one to go, and she has forgotten about her dad’s birthday.
After five weeks of tireless dedication to her new job, Jane is more conscious about the divergences in the routine. She’s starting to realize things were ignored before– digressions that cannot be considered normal. It’s not a miserable job– well, except for the indifferent co-workers, a demanding boss, and random tasks to do that shouldn’t rely on one assistant. In this case, there is also an element of danger and immorality. THE ASSISTANT focuses on the eventualities during one day in the office for Jane, to detect without showing directly the conditions of working at the command of a sexual predator, even if you are not one of his victims. Although the movie intentionally eludes to give names or provide a physical portray of the monster and his aggression, it certainly is a denouncement of power abuse and the structures that endorse it as a silent accomplice. It’s a movie about movie producer and sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein, whether the link remains implicit or not (the filmmaker has admitted openly).
THE ASSISTANT is the first fiction feature of Kitty Green, an Australian filmmaker whose previous experience is related to documentaries. Like those past projects, Green also has written, directed, produced, and edited this narrative film. She approached the microcosm of office work with subtlety and care, far from any excessive use of cinematic resources (static camera and little inclusion of music) in a documentary-like way. Green follows her protagonist intimately with a clear understanding of how tedious this kind of work can be hour by hour. The film takes its time, never get too far from Jane capturing her small actions, her contained reactions, and her compliant behavior. You can almost hear Jane’s thoughts at any moment without saying a word about them. Garner’s performance is magnificent and one of the best of the year because of that, though lacking the kind of grandiloquent gestures that get instant acclamation.
The movie benefited from Green’s experience in documentaries, who has the right sensibility to tackle an important subject and not falling in cheap sensationalism. As a filmmaker, Green has made a brave picture comprised of the less obvious choices. Jane’s boss is a fearful and oppressive “shadow” that remains off-screen all the time. To condemn the horror is convenient not to show it directly, while is more powerful to hear or intuit underneath. What is chilling about this particular movie is not the evidence of the horrible things a powerful man similar to Weinstein could do behind closed doors or in those moments when he is untraceable (we can only have suppositions). The upsetting consequence is how none of this has any importance for the people who work for him. This naturalization of horror is proof of moral and spiritual corruption, almost like a rite of passage for the new who are expected to act like the rest after they learn their lesson. It is inescapable to ask yourself, what would you do in Jane’s situation? The ones who hold the power and clout are aware that the majority would accept anything just for being “closer to the sun” and get a few compliments between one humiliation and the next. This is a film small in scope albeit great in its relevance. THE ASSISTANT provides insightful observations on why it’s so hard to speak against abuse, knowingly you are alone if you insist on walk such a hard path. A quintessential movie for the #MeToo era (in good company with a selection that includes THE TALE (2018), UNSANE (2018), or the most recent THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)).
I would like to add that THE ASSISTANT was one of the last films I was able to watch in a movie theater before the pandemic demanded a lock-down. By that moment it was already hard to find this kind of movie in direct competition with seasonal blockbusters. In a post-COVID19 world for cinema, it seems more unlikely that we will appreciate it in our closer movie theater when they finally open. That’s why more than ever if we really care about the future of movies, we have the commitment to prevent movies like this to disappear as future offerings in theaters. A video-on-demand release could be fatal for small movies because they will easily go unnoticed. THE ASSISTANT is probably one of the best films of the year that you haven’t seen yet even if you already can.