2020 | rated R | starring Julia Garner | written & directed by Kitty Green | 1 hr 27 mins |
Kitty Green’s The Assistant is a gutsy, raw, little movie that has a lot to say and smartly restrains from outright saying any of it. It is a procedural day-in-the-life visual essay stripped down to cinema’s bare bones. It is like something Chantal Akerman would have made in the 70s teleported to post-Harvey Weinstein Hollywood, but left entirely to the viewer’s interpretation. For a movie where so little happens on-screen I was inspired by thoughts and questions by the end of it. Some of it’s questions and contradictions may not even be intentional, but Green’s sheer clear-eyed commitment to letting the material hang out there in front of us is what makes it work so well.
The film centers around Julia Garner as Jane, the title assistant to a big time Hollywood producer that we never seen and is only referred to in hushed tones as “he”. Garner is in every second of the movie. Usually movies like this fly under the radar and are just consumed by indie film snobs like myself, but two things are happening that has turned The Assistant into a bit of a venus fly trap for mainstream movie goers. It stars Julia Garner, coming off her tremendous, Emmy-winning work in Ozark which will likely draw in some fans of that tightly-written, high-stakes show. Also, movie theaters are closed due to the 2020 pandemic and with nothing big out these little movies are getting a lot more attention. Ironically enough, given the universe The Assistant lives in, just about every movie I’ve seen this year has been directed or co-directed by a woman (Shirley, The Lodge, The Other Lamb, The Old Guard), which could either or both be a residual effect of Hollywood’s Time’s Up commitment – OR a product of the pandemic where we are now seeing the little movies that sexist Hollywood usually deems not worthy of a theatrical release and buries under Fast and the Furious sequels while all the while championing how feminist they are.
All of that is to say consider this review like a warning label on the front of The Assistant that says “This movie is plotless”. It is not a drama, it is not a thriller. It is a day in the life of an assistant working a boring menial office job. A procedural in the most pure cinema form. If you have, by chance seen Chantal Akerman movies like Jeanne Dielman (a 3 hour affair where we watch static shots of housewives do choirs for 3 days) or Hotel Monterey (a silent experimental work showing the daily workings of a crummy New York hotel) you’ll be better prepared for The Assistant. The movie will also feel like Avengers: Endgame compared to Jeanne Dielman.
We follow Jane through the day as she gets to the cramped New York office before the sun comes up, does dishes, straightens up and sits in silence listening to the office cliques around her. While the office is male-dominated, Green is careful to show the men (Jane shares a workspace with 2 snickering guys, who help her navigate the rules of survival) being berated by the boss as well and to show other women in the office ignoring Jane just the same, broadening the scope from being about gender to being about office hierarchy and class. Green never goes for the obvious, the men in the office aren’t making sexist jokes and comments. The HR manager she goes to for help is the movies most overt villain and even his “leave it alone” threat is couched with what seems to be professional advise based on how he has survived in this environment. Everyone is both victim and perpetrator of what is going on.
What is going on? The Assistant is about Harvey Weinstein and the environment that allowed the “open secret” to prosper. On one hand I love the approach to not make it about the boss, on the other hand I wonder why we keep tip-toeing around depicting this guy by name as a monster. Why is the most accurate portrayal of Weinstein on film still Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder? Jane believes things are happening to the parade of attractive women who show up to audition for the boss, but can’t prove it and at only 2 months tenure doesn’t have the clout to say anything. The camera stays on her face while she performs her routine, now leaving us to wonder if she is simmering with anger or pushing it down to numbness. Twice she is screamed at over the phone by the boss and is emotionally rattled, writes email apologies with the help of her co-workers and is encouraged by those around her that she too, like the actresses, will have a bright future with the company. It’s both cultish, but also the competitive reality of the business world.
We talked in the Late Night review of how movies and pop culture depict women and men differently in the workplace and The Assistant does that well. Men in the office have adapted to survive. They’ve either become competitive or numb or simply been able to divorce what’s business and what’s personal. There are certain thing that you have to do at a job that might push a person out of their comfort zone, be it socially or skillfully, and that is normal. There is no version of this movie that would be made about a male assistant because when we take those office dynamics and drop them on a female they then are perceived to be uncomfortable, unnecessary and toxic. It says more about how we view women than about how we do work. The Assistant is smart enough not to argue one way or the other on this. It just shows it and lets us decide how much of this is productive and necessary. I can both see someone coming away from the movie thinking it is a story of abuse and another coming away thinking it is a story of everyday survival and a third thinking it is pretentious garbage. Hollywood normally has a skewed view on corporate life just like it has a skewed view of sex and relationships. They think all bosses are evil and employees are victims when the reality is more like the complicated world in this movie.
I also love how the office is a production house for the movie business. Instead of sets and stars and power lunches at The Palm, Green shows the clinical, cubical-dwelling drudgery behind the movie industry. Where audition tapes come by the dozen in boxes and scripts are bound and passed around and treated like widgets on an assembly line. The Assistant shows how easily the line between office adaptation and actual harassment can get blurred and buried one washed dish and ignored lost earing at a time – but it only works that way through the prism of a post-Weinstein hindsight and it does so in a bare almost-documentary style that keeps it from being a sanctimonious sermon.
The back half of the movie illuminates why the movie is as stark and bare bones as it is. The Assistant follows a bit like Paul Greengrass’s excellent United 93, a movie that is great for what it isn’t as much as what it is. A more traditional Hollywood version of United 93 or The Assistant would come off tacky, melodramatic and hit us over the head. This style pulls out all of that fluff, handling sensitive material with a feather touch. Allowing us to observe and form our own questions.
Is there a version of this movie where these themes are integrated into a story with an arc and stakes that is probably more satisfying? Maybe? But there is also a version where the needs of a dramatized plot turn it into an insufferable, obvious, manipulative lecture that I – and most of the audience – would have rejected. With The Assistant, Green has smartly found a way to dig into the material in a more clever way that forces us to do the heavy lifting. It’s very good, but for a specific type of movie-goer.