Hello again, hope everyone out there is still healthy and hasn’t ‘completed’ Netflix yet. It’s coming up to two months now since I saw a film in the cinema, probably the longest theatre-less stretch since childhood! I am happy, however, that there seems to be a regular and steady flow of home releases to enjoy until the time comes when we can all eat popcorn together again. Arguably this week’s highest profile VOD release was Kitty Green’s The Assistant, a film that I had been interested in seeing for some time.
Set in New York City, the film tells the story of Jane (Julia Garner), a young graduate five weeks into a job at a film production company working for a high powered producer. From the word go, we are shown that this is not a position to be envied, as the stress and ‘walking on eggshells’ nature of the job quickly transitions into Jane’s realisation that this world is one both unsafe for women and not appreciative of their talents.
The themes explored within The Assistant are ones that we all recognise as being hot topic in this current climate. The film is essentially a take on the emergence and spotlighting of the #MeToo movement, but what feels particularly impressive is that the picture stays in a very sombre and realistically sinister place rather than giving in to ‘Hollywood’ catharsis.
You might recall my disappointment with Bombshell earlier in the year, and hot off the heels of that competing #MeToo tale, The Assistant feels like the kind of movie that Bombshell could have been but was too scared not to give it’s audience an attempted inspiring ending. This provides a very different take on the bones of the movement. It is not explosive or victory seeking like the cinematic justice stories we want to see, but rather a slow crawling insidious look at the reality of such a situation. It actually verges on horror in tone at times which is unexpected but when you consider the themes, wholly fitting.
The thing is, though, that in its tone and commitment to telling a less ‘showy’, more gritty and almost unenthusiastic version of a work place harassment story, the film stands as being impressive and well done, but not particularly entertaining to watch. The Assistant doesn’t have the showy glamour of someone like Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman ‘sticking it to the man’, it rather shows the audience what the reality of this kind of situation often is for many women. There is a sense of crushing oppression and frustration throughout the narrative, in the way that Jane is so undervalued, in the way that her concerns are so overtly disregarded. It is pretty soul destroying to see the enthusiasm for a career die in a character in such a short space of time. It might not be entertaining or cathartic, but it is certainly watchable in a foreboding and uncomfortable way.
As Jane, Julia Garner is a stoic and affecting presence. The film contains no dialogue for what feels like the first ten or so minutes, simply following Jane as she completes the various monotonous and unthanked tasks of her daily routine at work. Come to think of it, dialogue is pretty sparse throughout the film, and much of the emotional impact comes from Garner’s great ability to act and emote with her eyes and physicality.
The rest of the cast are notably absent both in their brief onscreen showings and in their lack of connection with the audience. Everything is seen and understood through Jane’s lens. We don’t even get to meet, or learn the name of, the high powered exec for whom she works and on whom the majority of her suspicions and worries are based on. This is a bold choice but one that I really love, taking any potential charisma and personality away from a character whose sinister dealings should be the only defining character trait.
What is also effective is that many of Jane’s colleagues, even the supposedly ‘nice’ ones, are all shown to be aggressive and abusive towards her in their small ways. Noah Robbins as an unnamed male assistant personifies this perfectly, one minute telling her that she can always come to him for help, the next berating her for getting his lunch order wrong. It is these small details that really help to build up the hostile and unrewarding environment the film marinates in.
Overall, The Assistant can’t be described as an enjoyable picture, but it certainly is a well done one. It examines the less explosive, less ‘glamorous’ side of work place harassment and abuse of power, hitting on elements like complicity and facilitation in a way that truly makes the blood boil. This isn’t the kind of #MeToo narrative to select if you want something with silver lining justice. A slow burn that is harsh in its portrayal, but guess what? It fucking should be.