Film Reviews

The Assistant review: Dir. Kitty Green (2020)

Google the phrase ‘Harvey Weinstein‘ and you’ll be served page after page of news stories on abuse, sexual assault, convictions and jail time. Exactly what the assailant deserves for his extensive crimes; a career wiped clean, and years in prison dragging ahead of him, giving him hours of emptiness to think about how he ruined himself. Good.

One famous name is finally behind bars. But what about the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of big boss men who emulate Weinstein? Men, full of power and pumped full of cash, who believe they’re doing nothing wrong. Where are they? In Kitty Green‘s The Assistant, we’re given a rough idea of ‘a day in the life‘, and how one lowly female employee tries to make change happen.

Julia Garner (Ozark, Maniac) plays Jane, an assistant to the powerful director of a film production company, as we follow her over the course of one day. She wakes in darkness, getting a car to the office, unlocking doors and flicking on lights as she makes her silent way through the building. Jane makes cereal, eyes watching the clock as it ticks closer to sunrise, while she makes photocopies, brews coffee, tidies, watches the clock some more. She’s waiting for something, or someone. The tension rises with every second.

We hit 8 a.m. and are introduced to other characters who make appearances in Jane’s day. There’s her fellow (nameless) assistants (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins), who slide annoyingly easily between treating Jane like their own assistant, and taking pity on her when she faces trouble. There’s Sienna (Kristine Froseth), the latest recruit to the office, Jane entrusted with her on-boarding. Sienna’s noticeably young, younger than Jane, naive and hopeful that her new role will help her break into the film industry. There’s Max (Alexander Chaplin), an older colleague, who understands Jane’s unspoken worries. And there’s Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), a HR rep Jane meets with to discuss her concerns – the lone earring found on the floor of the office, and the shamed face of the woman who comes to collect it; the stained sofa colleagues joke about; that Sienna was shipped off to a hotel to meet the boss, ahead of starting her position.

Then there’s the characters we never meet, yet their voices alone conjure a feeling of dread. The director, just a menacing whisper on the end of the phone, ringing Jane to let her know she’s upset him in some way. The wife, calling in tears that her husband won’t return her voicemails, that he’s blocked her credit cards – what’s Jane going to do about it? When the phone rings, we see her visibly tense up, nervous to answer. When the director passes by her desk, his face just out of frame, we see Jane freeze, praying to be invisible for fear of another unjustified telling-off.

Green’s camera never leaves Garner as we tail her around the office. She is the centre of our world, but just a speck in everyone else’s. Garner herself is a powerhouse, angry energy bubbling away under the surface, her internal screams released through the whirr of the blender as she makes a smoothie for the voice at the end of her phone. Given little dialogue, what Garner says when she says it is important, yet when we see her sit down with Wilcock she’s encouraged to be quiet, get on with the job, be grateful you’re here. Eyes brimming with tears, Jane returns to her desk, Garner’s shoulders rigid with tension ahead of her next whispered, threatening call from the director.

A quick search online and you’ll see that the film is splitting audiences, with one such reviewer stating, ‘About the most boring movie of all time. No love, no laughter, no suspense. Simply a movie about the most miserable unimaginative people ever.‘ Now, the trailer does sell The Assistant as a bit of a thriller, so I’ll give this particular comment a break. By cutting together lots of the narrative’s key moments, it gives the film a feeling of psychological tension, like Jane’s going to be able to take down her boss once and for all. As if we’re headed towards a climatic courtroom scene not shown, Jane versus the patriarchy, watching as her boss is walked away in handcuffs.

Except that doesn’t happen. On the contrary, it’s a slow burn and much like its title character, it’s silently powerful. Watch closely and you’ll see that a lot happens, you’ve just got to be paying attention to the subtlety surrounding Jane – watch for the details her colleagues refuse to acknowledge. As for ‘no love, no laughter‘: this is a #MeToo movement film, what did you expect? There is no laughter. There is definitely no love. Just money, power, ego.

While The Assistant may not be for some, for others it’ll be everything. A quiet, subtle, punchy, clever look into ‘the world of Weinstein’, and how one singular employee lives in it. Be patient, it pays off.

The Assistant is released in the UK from 1 May 2020

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