“The Assistant” features a music score by Tamar-kali, an American rock singer-songwriter and composer who is based in Brooklyn, New York. The interesting thing is, we only hear her score at the very beginning and the very end of this film. Truth is, “The Assistant” does not need a music score to highlight the endless tension of the working environment these characters we see here work in as the feeling of suffocating intensity is intensely palpable throughout. This is saying a lot because some filmmakers thrive on a music score to make the unbearable seem even more so, but like “The China Syndrome,” this film does not need it as writer and director Kitty Green shows how certain workplaces can be so toxic to where no further illustration is required to make this point clear.
“The Assistant” follows Jane (Julia Garner), a junior assistant at a film production company, through a single day at her job which has arriving at the office before the sun comes up, and leaving long after it has set. We watch as she performs numerous tasks which are menial at best, and it is no surprise to see the job leaves her endlessly stressed and exhausted as it consumes her life to where anything and everything outside of it plays a very distant second. She even forgets her father’s birthday, and her mother chides her for it. But perhaps the most shocking thing about this scene is how Jane manages to get the smallest amount of free time to make any personal calls while at work. During this moment, I kept thinking her boss was wondering where the hell she was and why she was not at her desk. Seriously, I have worked jobs which were similar to this one.
We quickly learn Jane has been working this job already for five weeks, so she has since been initially and brutally humbled by her boss who runs his company with an iron fist. Still, there is a bit of humanity left in Jane as we see her barely maintain her composure after her boss verbally abuses her for talking to his wife. From there, she is forced to apologize to him via email for her behavior, and her male colleagues (played by Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) instruct her in the best way to write such an apology. Through scenes like this, it does not take much to see these guys have long since been schooled by their bully of a boss, and they feel obligated to help Jane out when she is in a tough position.
Not once do we ever see the face of Jane’s boss as he is quick to pass by her on the way to his office, and we only get to hear his voice either behind closed doors or through the unsparingly vicious phone calls she has with Jane. There is no doubt this boss is meant to represent Harvey Weinstein, the man who ruled Miramax and The Weinstein Company through endless brutality and intimidation and is now in prison for his horrific offenses which include sexual assault and rape. Just the thought of this boss is enough to keep Jane and her fellow colleagues on edge throughout as any mere mistake can cause him to fall into a full-blown rage. He’s like the creature in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” as what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. Besides, this boss probably looks as appealing as Harvey ever did (that’s to say, not at all).
But the most brutal scene in “The Assistant” comes when Jane speaks with the company’s Human Resources director, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), about a new girl who has just been employed. Her name is Sienna (Kristine Froseth), and she has been put up in a room at The Peninsula, a high-end hotel in the heart of Beverly Hills. Jane never got this kind of treatment when she was hired and cannot help but wonder if Sienna is in some kind of danger. But instead of being taken seriously, Jane is instead berated by Wilcock for bringing this to his attention, reminding her of how many people she beat out to get the job she has (the number is in the hundreds). But as Jane leaves, Wilcock assures her she has nothing to worry about as, in a line which has long since been spoiled by the film’s trailer:
“You’re not his type.”
It is in this moment in which Green shows how the safeguards designed to protect employees from horrific abuse have long since failed them as those with all the power rendered them useless. As a result, you realize in a very depressing way how someone like Harvey Weinstein managed to get away with so much abuse for decades. Yes, karma did come around to kick him in the buttocks, but the fact it took so long to do so does not speak well of the world at large.
Green also shows how those employed in such a suffocating working environment get by even as they are micromanaged to such a blistering degree. Every character we see here has long since been indoctrinated into a situation which they have been led to believe will eventually move them up the show business ladder.
At the center of “The Assistant” is the unforgettable performance by Julia Garner. As Jane, she fully inhabits this character to where you see how she has since been indoctrinated into her position to where any abuses and humiliations from her boss have long since humbled her in ways no one should ever be humbled by. Still, the “Ozark” actress makes us see there is still some humanity left in her. The question is, will she have any of it left by the time the end credits begin to roll? We watch Jane as she observes a certain silhouette in her boss’ window, and her resignation to the things she is unable to control shows how this film was destined to end with a depressing climax. And in the end, how else could it have ended?
“The Assistant” would make an unforgettable double feature with “Swimming with Sharks,” George Huang’s 1994 film about a naïve young writer named Guy (Frank Whaley) who, just out of film school, gets a job as an assistant to influential movie mogul, Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), who quickly turns out to be the boss from hell. Both films show how this abusive behavior has been normalized for far too long as many industry hopefuls have been cruelly led to believe this treatment is a rite of passage into a realm which seemingly promises both wealth and power. It came out just after Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predatory acts were revealed for all the world to see, so it plays like a documentary which has been smothered from public view for far too long. Now that people like Harvey are out of the picture, I wonder if things will change for the better. The sad fact is, this kind of behavior has been seen as acceptable for far too long, so who knows?
While “The Assistant” is a fierce indictment of Hollywood, it would be a mistake to think this abusive behavior is relegated to one industry. While Hollywood may be one of the main epicenters of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the abuses they address do not start and stop there as other business we know and have been led to believe are morally superior are as vulnerable to such abuses. Political commentator Tomi Lahren went out of her way to shame Hollywood for enabling Weinstein and people like him, but she did this from a news channel (in this case, Fox News) which went out of its way to pay millions to those who accused Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes of horrific abuse.
Simply put, judge not lest ye be judged. If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air. You will hit someone guilty.
* * * * out of * * * *