A Review of The Assistant
When I finished college, my first major break in the job department was for a large public relations firm in New York. I wanted to get into publishing, but public relations promised the opportunity to get some work experience under my belt and (in theory) use my writing skills. I commuted from the Hudson Valley - Monday thru Friday - into Midtown Manhattan, running errands, answering phones, doing research, and making appointments and many, many copies. I worked with/for lots of different kinds of people during my time there, and let’s just say: not all bosses are created equal.
Director Kitty Green’s 2020 film, The Assistant, gave me an intense case of déjà vu and at times, PTSD, for this early phase in my work life. Capturing the experiences of one long day for its main character, Jane (Julia Garner), the film accurately portrays several tedious and mentally draining aspects of the administrative field. These facets can wear someone down, but they are often chalked up to “being a team player” or “a part of the job,” for someone just getting started in their career. The amount of time the film spends showing these mundane activities - standing at the copier, cleaning up after meetings, washing dishes that are discarded by other employees who barely glance in Jane’s direction - is what starts to wear on the viewer. They are also what make the film’s portrayal of Jane so believable.
Jane is a recent college grad who is five weeks into her position at a prestigious film company based in New York. She knows this is a great opportunity and a stepping stone towards her long-term goal of getting into film producing, but the job is already taking a visible toll on her. She’s exhausted - we see her arrive before sunrise to open and set up the office - and her face is unusually guarded. Julia Garner’s performance is reserved but excellent. Jane frequently looks as if she has just sucked in a deep breath to avoid crying. Her lips are tight, her eyes glassy. When she needs to speak to others higher up at the company, they either look visibly annoyed or they do not look at her at all. She is one of three assistants (the other two are male) to the chairman of the company. Jane has been working so hard that she has forgotten to call her father for his birthday. Her parents, abstract voices on the other end of the phone, are supportive and understanding, knowing this is a great opportunity for their daughter. Jane’s boss is never named or referred to directly as anything other than “he.” “He wants to see you,” is enough for other executives to know who is being talked about. We never directly see “the boss” (as he is noted in the credits) but we do hear him speak, angrily muffled, over the phone. Twice during the film we watch Jane draft email apologies to him with her male cohorts looking over her shoulder offering advice. This is nothing new. The act of ingratiating oneself to the big boss seems to be the norm at the company, even when he is the one at fault.
Murmured conversations and jokes made by Jane’s coworkers add to the general sense of unease throughout the film; we overhear dialogue as Jane hears it. If she is tired and zoning out while getting a glass of water, we are also zoned out, and miss the first part of a sentence until Jane realizes someone is speaking to her. That’s part of the realism of Green’s film; we are Jane: tired, uneasy, and working hard to make the most of a bad situation until it seems to be too much. In this case, red flags seem to come in bits and pieces throughout the film: a woman’s earring found under the couch in her boss’s office, his upset wife calling, demanding to know where he is and who he is with, a new female employee showing up that was promised a job after a chance encounter with “the boss” while he was in Idaho. The Assistant is modeled after Miramax and Harvey Weinstein without ever directly saying so. While we never receive concrete evidence that something bad is happening behind closed doors, Jane picks up on the little things happening around her that lead her (and us) to that belief. The new female hire from Idaho is put up at a fancy hotel upon arrival where the boss is believed to be visiting her. Female actresses trying to “make it” are often left alone in the office with the boss late at night. Fellow executives make cracks about his behavior but it is never reported, until Jane finally attempts to speak up to someone in Human Resources.
There is so little dialogue in the film as a whole, that when Jane finally meets with a member of Human Resources (played by Matthew McFadyen) it is completely jarring. Jane attempts to describe why she is concerned about the new female employee from Idaho, while McFadyen’s character takes notes distractedly. He shows no real sense of urgency as Jane does. Things eventually flip in the conversation so intensely that it is a horrifying wake up call to both Jane and the audience. I won’t give much else away because it is a standout scene that deserves to be taken in. Long story short, Jane returns to her desk and is reprimanded for her attempt at whistleblowing (so much for confidentiality). Jane is repeatedly demeaned and harassed by her boss, and then made to feel that it is all in an attempt to make her “better.” Her boss claims that he is hard on her because she is good, and “he is going to make her great.”
Green’s film does so much right in making this a very recognizable and realistic view of life as an assistant at a large corporation, where so few wield so much power and influence at their own discretion. The fact that this film came out post #MeToo movement and the arrest of Harvey Weinstein, makes it that much more impactful. It showcases the inherent compliance of an entire group of employees with the terrible deeds done by its leader. Everyone is either too new, too powerless, too tired, too disinterested or too afraid to speak up. They keep their heads down and keep working. And so, ultimately, does Jane. The Assistant is a draining and, at times, disturbing watch, but it is well worth it. I look forward to seeing what Green, and Julia Garner do next.
Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro