There have been several attempts to capture the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements on film, with mostly cringe-inducing results – I’m looking at you Bombshell. Finally we are starting to see some films (such as Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always) that feel like a genuine effort is being made to wrestle with what it actually looks and sounds like to be in a subordinate position to men who abuse their positions of power. Films which use restraint, are tightly controlled, and are extremely subtle and nuanced in their writing and performances, as opposed to an ham-fisted opportunistic cash-in on a trending topic. And Kitty Green’s The Assistant is definitely firmly in this camp.
Despite being only 25, talented actress Julia Garner has racked up 30 credits in the last decade, including Martha Macy May Marlene, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Perks of Being a Wallflower and Ozark. Playing the protagonist Jane in The Assistant, the film absolutely rests on Garner’s shoulders, as she is in every scene and is our entry into the world of an abusive Hollywood producer (there is obviously one real-life name that will come to mind, although the film is making wider points than that one example). Writer-director Kitty Green is best known for directing the unusual documentary Casting JonBenet, which had some qualities of a narrative film and The Assistant certainly has an observational feel that you might expect from a traditional documentary director (which Green is not). It’s almost as if she is reversing narrative and documentary techniques in her work, which means she is definitely an exciting director to follow.
The Assistant follows a ‘day in the life’ format, which is an ingenious way to demonstrate every micro-aggression and humiliation that this young woman faces, on a daily basis. The other essential choice that Green makes is to not ever show or name the boss in question, he remains anonymous and therefore universal. It is also completely realistic that one person at the centre, who an entire company revolves around, would only ever be referred to as “he” – “has he left yet?” “do you have his lunch?” – because everyone knows exactly who is being referred to. He has a Big Brother quality, with his power pervading the entire environment.
The delicate balance that Green skilfully crafts in The Assistant is an all-pervading dull sense of malaise and despair in this thoroughly depressing, oppressive office environment. The most striking thing is that Jane doesn’t smile or laugh once during her day, there is no levity, there is nothing that most workers rely on to get through the day – knowing that however crappy your job is, you still get to have a laugh with your workmates. She has to get up painfully early (in the dark) and leaves the office late (in the dark) in order to perform a series of either mundane chores such as cooking, cleaning, running errands, making sure the fridge is stocked with protein shakes and vitamin shots or doing a good job performing skilled tasks such as scheduling, making negotiations over the phone etc which go totally overlooked and unappreciated. The office is a windowless, airless environment that has had all life sucked out of it by the fact that everyone who works there is clearly terrified of their boss. Everyone is walking on eggshells, in constant fear of f*cking up and also trying to screw each other over in order to briefly have the light of good fortune shine upon them. The sense that everyone is tip-toeing around one another is conveyed through Green’s carefully choreographed blocking of her actors within their prison-like environment. The sound mixing by Alan Kudan is another aspect that takes advantage of the dull silence that envelops Jane at work, punctuated by excruciating detail. The male assistants (played by Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) patronise Jane, throw paper balls at her to get her attention and then act like they’re doing her a favour by helping her compose grovelling apology emails to the boss.
The most stunning scene is when Jane summons up the courage to take her concerns to HR. A face-off with Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen, currently riding a wave of popularity for his role as Tom Wambsgans in Succession) takes place, in which he plays the nice, concerned guy before slowly, almost imperceptibly moving to passive aggression and gaslighting. It’s an acting masterclass from both Garner and Macfadyen, both giving performances which are glacially still on the surface but the smallest hint of a trembling lip or gritted teeth lets us know that there is so much going on behind the eyes. Garner delivers an acting triumph throughout the whole film. So many women will identify with being a similar age and in a similar position – trying to break into an industry that you love and putting up with almost anything in order to do so, determined not to show signs of weakness, to ‘suck it up’ and power on through. Garner remains almost entirely placid throughout, but we can always sense what she is desperately trying not to reveal.
Green has composed a minimal, taut script that is expertly paced and which gives us a window into an office environment which unfortunately will ring true for many people. It’s a rare example where the lack of any detailed backstory or characterisation really works, if we knew more about any of these people, it would not be as effective. Even our protagonist’s life outside of work is barely hinted at – there is a brief phone call with her Mum and one with her Dad – but this is only to demonstrate that she is hiding her agony from them, as well as everyone in the office. This weirdly helps our empathy, rather than hinders it – it is very easy to imagine yourself in Jane’s shoes and wonder what you would do in that position. Garner delivers one of the best performances of the year, exquisite in its restraint and Green’s writing, in particular, is exceptional. This is a discomforting, disquieting watch, but a more than worthwhile one. I cannot wait to see what Green and Garner do next.
Directed by: Kitty Green
Written by: Kitty Green
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh