film 'The Assistant' – Eloquent Sexual Harassment Drama
A performance of few words but immense physical eloquence by Julia Garner anchors this impressively chilling #MeToo-era drama about workplace harassment and abuse. Following a day in the life of a young woman with dreams of making her mark in the film and television industry, it’s a sobering portrait of a dirty little secret that was brought into the news spotlight by the Harvey Weinstein scandal. All the more powerful for its understated tone, this low-key piece packs a hefty punch as it exposes the web of silence that enabled a very modern horror story.
Garner (who won an Emmy for her work on TV’s Ozark) is Jane, a high-achieving college graduate who finds herself on the bottom rung of the ladder as a junior assistant to an unnamed entertainment mogul in New York. The appointment may hold promises of great opportunities ahead, but for now it’s fairly soul destroying. An opening sequence, played out to the lonely strains of Tamar-kali’s sparse score, finds Jane being driven to the office before dawn, turning on the lights above her colleagues’ desks – first in, last out. Her tasks are menial yet weirdly demanding: making coffee, changing the paper in the photocopier, ordering lunch, and arranging travel and accommodation for an ever-changing roster of offhand executives and needy clients.
When her boss is out of the office Jane discreetly cleans his lair, sweeping powdered detritus from his desk, removing used syringes from his waste bin, picking suspiciously abandoned earrings out of the carpet, even scrubbing stains off the couch – a subject of ribald office banter. It’s clear from the outset that he’s a grotesque philanderer (and worse), leaving Jane to field increasingly irate calls from his wife (“I’m not going to lie for him”), then getting yelled at down the phone for “interfering” in his “personal affairs”. During the course of a single day in which she does nothing but pander to his needs, we watch Jane write two separate apologetic emails, both of which include the humiliating assurance that she will not “let you down again”.
The demoralising effect of such Kafkaesque torment is, of course, entirely deliberate, deployed with practised ease to wrongfoot and disorientate. While the sight of Jane being yelled at on the phone may be distressing, even more sinister is the email that follows, assuring her that she’s being treated harshly because she’s “good”, but could be “great”. Later, when a driver tells Jane that her boss thinks she’s “smart”, this downtrodden assistant is almost pathetically grateful for the secondhand compliment. Crucially, both the abuse and the praise are forms of attack, working in tandem to undermine Jane’s self-confidence, ensuring that she remains in her place, eager to please and placate.
Originally envisaged as a work of “scripted nonfiction”, this insightful film by Kitty Green (who made the documentaries Ukraine Is Not a Brothel and Casting JonBenet) mutated into a drama inspired by the real-life stories of women working in the film and TV industry. The result may be fiction, but everything about it rings true, from the slight shabbiness of the office, which has no hint of old-school movie glamour, to the day-to-day bullying practised by Jane’s workmates, who know that this is what’s needed to succeed. Within this toxic ecosystem, no one is interested in Jane’s tentatively voiced concerns for a vulnerable young girl who’s just been flown in from Boise, Idaho, and who seems primed to become her predatory boss’s next victim. In a scene of skin-crawling smarminess, Jane’s tentative complaints are sideswiped by the slimy HR exec Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), who implies that she’s motivated by jealousy and hysteria but offhandedly reassures Jane that she’s safe because “you’re not his type”.
Brilliantly, Green opts to keep the monster at the centre of this labyrinth off screen, the presence of Jane’s faceless boss registered mainly by the sound of his laughter and screams seeping through closed doors and down telephone lines. It’s an astute choice that lends a universality to this unseen spectre, focusing our attention instead on the trickle-down toxicity of his regime, enabling his crimes, silencing his enemies, turning his underlings into de facto accomplices. Astutely, Green shows us how the boss’s behavioural mantle has been adopted by everyone in this workplace, creating a culture in which covert aggression and harassment are just business as usual.
It’s a credit to Garner that, as a character who effectively has no voice, she manages to say so much about Jane’s predicament through posture, pose and gesture; the way she seems constantly uneasy in her office chair; the fleeting glimpse of alarm in her eyes at the sound of a ringing phone; the slump of exhausted defeat that accompanies her lonely late-night sandwich. The weight of the world is on her shoulders, and thanks to Garner’s nuanced performance and Green’s skilful direction, we feel it upon ours too.
The Assistant is streaming on multiple platforms.