Jane (Julia Garner) is picked up for work in the middle of the night. She’s the first one in the office of the unnamed film executive each morning. She tidies up, answers the phones, makes the coffee, does the accounts, the scheduling, the photocopying, the travel arrangements, orders food, and babysits any kids who happen to drop by whilst their parents have a meeting.
The Assistant follows Jane through one day at her taxing, boring, frustrating job. As that day progresses, she starts to figure out that something isn’t right. She finds an earring on the executive’s floor, which is picked up later by a sheepish woman. Large sums of money have been paid out, but no recipient is noted in the accounts; when she asks a manager, he tells her not to worry about it. A new assistant (Kristine Froseth) arrives, who – despite having no background in film – was hired after she met the executive when she was waitressing at an event he attended. Though Jane has no definitive proof, it’s clear that something is up. Unfortunately, getting someone to care about her concerns proves a real challenge.
You never see the executive – a character clearly based on Harvey Weinstein – but he’s always there. He’s a malevolent presence in the corners of the screen, making all of his underlings feels uncomfortable. He’s erratic, unpredictable; one moment he’s screaming at Jane over the phone, the next he’s praising her. You don’t need to see him to sense the horrendous atmosphere he’s created. And it works for him. As Jane’s day progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that plenty of her colleagues have also discovered the executive’s untoward activities, but nobody says anything. His power is absolute. Unquestionable. When she goes to see the HR manager (a chilling Matthew MacFadyen), and he slaps her down like a mosquito on a sunny day, all hope seems to be lost.Whilst on the surface The Assistant is a pretty uneventful movie – lots of photocopying, cleaning, phone calls etc. – there’s a palpable tension that builds and builds. The monotony is a killer. It’s a grey, brown, beige, male world. There’s a near-complete lack of kindness or conviviality. We hear Jane talk on the phone with her parents – she was so busy with work that she forgot her dad’s birthday – and you can hear the excitement in their voices about this ‘amazing opportunity’ their daughter has found. It’s a horrible situation: to have such a monotonous, time-consuming, unfulfilling job, and to have to hide your true feelings about it from your loved ones. How do you complain about your job when it’s one that thousands of others dream of having? And it might – eventually – lead to where you really want to be? So Jane remains trapped. Julia Garner is so good as the unfortunate heroine; though it’s a quiet performance, she plays Jane with a definite scream behind the eyes.
In her debut feature, writer-director Kitty Green paints a damning portrait of a toxic work culture, and the male-dominated power structure that made it that way. Restrained, but emotionally bruising, The Assistant is a vital, gripping movie.