You don’t need to know a thing about Hollywood scandals, the groundswell of #MeToo, and the enough-is-enough outrage over sexual abuse to identify and empathize with the characters in “The Assistant.” After all, everyone’s had the demeaning and degrading boss from hell.
When producer James Schamus first announced that Australian documentarian Kitty Green’s (“Ukraine Is Not A Brothel” and “Casting Jon Benet”) next movie would be a drama about a Harvey Weinstein subordinate, many were expecting another explosive exposé of the Hollywood mogul’s many alleged predatory transgressions. Cut to two years later and there is not one trace or mention of Weinstein, his movie studio, or the films they make in Green’s deliberate and unshowy film. It matters not; Weinstein’s domineering, sweaty-palmed DNA—and other bodily fluids—are all over every frame of a movie clearly set in the New York offices of the Weinstein Company (presumably legal advised against naming names).
Applying an investigative approach to Green’s fictional material, “The Assistant” largely ignores the powerful movie magnate in this story—physically, at least, since his oppressive presence is everywhere—and takes a decidedly low-level gaze at the young woman assisting him and giving voice to all she endures. Clinical in nature and matter-of-fact (but still affecting), “The Assistant” is essentially a procedural about being a personal assistant to a powerful Hollywood man and all that entails. This includes the mundanity of prepping water bottles for a meeting and printing out regional box-office grosses; to the indignity of cleaning up the cum stains off his couch or running interference with his wife; to suffering the torrents of verbal abuse he rains down over the phone. No belittling task is beneath her in this debasing, demanding, and thankless job that consumes her life in a 24/7 blanketing.
Though it’s set over the course of 24 hours in Manhattan, the movie feels like months of emotional exhaustion for its lead, an outstanding—and spiritually fatigued—Julia Garner (“Ozark”). Green makes a bold, brave choice right off the bat that completely works: the Weinstein-like figure is never shown aside from in passing, in the halls, just once. Otherwise, he is only ever heard from over the phone—often inaudibly— and once via email (when you do hear him, he sounds a little bit like Corey Stoll, even though the voice is that of Jay O. Sanders).
It’s tough material, depicted in surgical dispassion and replete with the unflattering fluorescent lights and drab production designs of an unremarkable office, but it’s all anchored by an excellent performance by the always-terrific Garner. The young assistant diligently manages his schedule and rarely speaks, internalizing mistreatment instead. She is frequently seen performing banal tasks—picking up around the office, eating microwaved food in the kitchen, etc. She’s the first in the office (often before daylight) and the last to leave, and the film goes on for relatively long stretches where the camera voyeuristically watches her. But the effect grows over time as does Garner’s suppressed, bottled-up performance. She doesn’t need to say much; this expressive actor has the wounds written all over her face and communicates all the trauma and humiliating emotional injury she’s sustained so far.
Things get worse, of course, when Garner’s character comes to a moral crossroads and she finds herself entangled in the executive’s messy and shady personal life. Alarm bells about his predatory nature begin to ring when an attractive—and inexperienced—young assistant from Idaho is hired out of nowhere and put up in a five-star Manhattan hotel.
Outside an appearance by Matthew Macfadyen—who plays a man in HR who listens to one of Garner’s complaints in a chilling extended scene highlighting the risks of speaking out—”The Assistant” is largely a one-woman show. There are two douchebag dudes who work in the office, and actors appear here and there as other TWC employees or attractive actresses looking for facetime with the movie impresario (Kristine Froseth, Makenzie Leigh, Noah Robbins, Dagmara Domińczyk, and Purva Bedi), but their collective screen time nearly amounts to just a cameo.
Anyone can identify with the material, but “The Assistant” also possesses a darker, lacerating level that only women can understand as a kind of horror movie: gender discrimination, the daily inequities faced, the condescension of men who feel like they do not need to behave or play by any rules, and the general vulnerabilities in the workplace. While much of the film executive’s behavior is insulting, inappropriate, and degrading—we only get it in small doses of muffled dialogue, but the intention is clear nonetheless—there’s the odious strain of gaslighting that surfaces in the picture too. “I’m sorry,” he says, apologizing at one point in the movie, “I’m hard on you only because one day I’m going to make you great.” It’s a nauseating moment that makes one dizzy.
Provocative and challenging, “The Assistant” might be too muted and remote for some audiences, but it’s filmed with ballsy, patient, and unsentimental filmmaking choices—save one unnecessary shot at the end—and features another exceptional turn from Garner, who is proving to be one of the most unusual and exciting actors of her generation. Anyone who’s ever worked in an office understands the scary politics of power, and the belittling that often follows, especially when there are powerful men involved sitting in the big chair. Getting thrown under the bus is an occupational hazard. In a typical Hollywood movie, the bad boy behavior—the monster—gets center stage, a scene-chewing opportunity for some white veteran actor perhaps. “The Assistant” feels like a moment of change in the way it aggressively, knowingly defies that convention. The restrained drama asks you to look away from those men and finally consider and regard the people who suffer underneath and the toll it takes to survive in a toxic workplace. [B]