No sugar-coating or slickness here
The Assistant, a #MeToo film by Kitty Green about Harvey Weinstein’s reign of terror and sexual abuse at his film distribution company Miramax, is not for everyone. It’s a moody, dark, rather slow-paced independent that follows a day in the life of one of Weinstein’s assistants. No one ever mentions Harvey’s name, or any character’s name, and we never see the actor playing his voice (uncredited, as far as I can tell) except as a partial figure in the room beyond, or a naked, thrusting blob obscured by window coverings. His voice isn’t clear either, whether we hear it through the closed door of his office or over the phone as he berates the titular assistant, Jane. Everything about him is obscured and murky, which leaves us to focus on Jane, deftly played by Julia Garner (Ozark).
THE ASSISTANT ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Kitty Green
Written by: Kitty Green
Starring: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfayden, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins
Running time: 85 min
Green follows Jane from her sad abode in Queens to the office in the predawn hours. The first thing one notices are the sounds: the fluorescent lights going on, coffee brewing in an unseen pot, computers being started up, ejaculate being scrubbed from a sofa. The mundane and the evidence. It’s unclear, even after she finds a stray hoop earring on her boss’s office floor, whether Jane is not-yet-awake to what’s going on around her, or already deep in denial. The sharpness of the clacking of the keyboards and the flicking of light switches is a stark contrast to the muffled voices behind closed doors. The sound design is really quite intentional and brilliant.
Jane has two officemates: two male assistants who are clearly above her in status, one of whom chucks balls of paper at her when he requires her attention. Their pity and disdain for her is palpable. During the first act, the rest of the office starts to come into the focus: the guy who has to clean up Weinstein’s messes when “he’s in a personal,” the coded language, the setting up of meetings with female actors in hotel restaurants in LA, the handling of his irate wife over the phone, his muffled tirades, and the quiet, expected email apologies from the Assistant that follow.
The major plot point in this particular day is the arrival of a new “employee.” Weinstein has promised this young woman, even younger than Jane, a job as an assistant. Jane watches her sign quite a few legal documents that the girl clearly doesn’t understand, and then accompanies her on a ride to a fancy hotel where Weinstein is putting her up.
Soon after dropping off the new girl, Jane notices that the boss is no longer in the office. He’s missing appointments. His wife wants to know where he is and who he’s with. The executives, gathering in his office for a meeting, seem to know that he’s at the hotel with the new girl. One executive chastises another, “Never sit on the couch.” They all know what happens there, and, in case anyone missed the scrubbing in the opening sequence, now we do too. When the male assistants ask, “Where did you take her?” and Jane replies with the name of the hotel, you can see how dirty and complicit she feels.
Jane slips over to the adjacent office and asks for a meeting with the head of HR, played by Matthew Macfadyen. In a beautifully executed scene, first HR guy feigns concern, then he plays obtuse as Jane tries to lay out her worries about this young woman. “What can we do?” “About what?” “About the girl.” In this scene, we learn that Jane’s only been in this job for five weeks. Is this the day that she finally figures out what sort of illicit activities her boss is up to? Or has she known, and this the day that her denial can no longer persist? Is this the day she gets fed up with pretending? It’s hard to say.
What’s clear is that she wants to be a producer some day, and HR guy thinks, “you’ve got a great future… Why throw it all away?” “I can file a complaint for you, but I think you know how it would come off.” Jane ultimately tells him not to file the complaint, and as she leaves, HR Guy reassures her, “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. You’re not his type.” As if she asked for a meeting because she was concerned about herself. The message is clear: In this business, you should only worry about yourself and your own trajectory.
Later the new girl appears at the empty desk across from her, looking shy and embarrassed, but it’s shot like a horror film, as if she’s appeared out of nowhere. Green shoots much of this like a horror film, because that’s what the situation is. Everyone, including the audience, knows that evil is being perpetrated, and everyone feels powerless to address it. While the setting is drab, and often dimly lit, the cinematography is quite impressive. Michale Latham uses odd angles to observe Jane and keep the audience off balance.
The Assistant is quietly suspenseful. Green makes sure the stakes feel very high, and the mundanity that she and Latham point the camera at is clearly hiding a dark underbelly of abuse. Still, the film will feel slow and uneventful to many. If you’re good at reading emotional pain on a woman’s face, you’ll really appreciate Julia Garner’s performance. If your EQ is low, or you don’t have much empathy for women, I wouldn’t bother. A woman sitting behind me at the matinee said afterwards, “It wasn’t Bombshell.” And it’s true. Bombshell has a hard veneer, a slick Hollywood feel, and the appearance of triumph. The Assistant is all grit and ugliness, with no appearance of triumph. But with Harvey Weinstein’s trial still going on, it remains to be seen who will be victorious in the end.