‘The Assistant’ quietly dismantles an evil system

March 13, 2020

While the film industry has a reputation for sensationalized, contrived world-building, movies often capture the monotony of daily life to shed light on the quietly overlooked moments that pass us by with time. They reveal the uncontrollable good and bad, the subtle emotion of ordinary occurrences that we render unimportant because, when the mundanity of evil is not highlighted through a specific lens, it becomes easy to ignore. 

Kitty Green’s “The Assistant,” is not meant for escapism. In the film she wrote, directed and co-edited, Green urges her audience to note every detail as we follow Jane (Julia Garner), a scrupulous assistant to an anonymous film production bigwig, throughout her taxing workday. At her boss’ beck and call, Jane performs thankless task after thankless task, suffering countless indignities without complaint. While the men sit at their desks, it becomes her responsibility to deliver lunch (taking audacious criticism when she accidentally brings the wrong sandwich), handle unwanted phone calls and watch over a co-worker’s children. She is forced to assume the role of caregiver: not only for the kids she babysits in a colleague’s absence, but also for the male assistants who rely on her to manage the unpleasant work and the boss she must consistently clean up after (both figuratively and literally). 

As Jane carries out her tedious routine, I was reminded of Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman,” a nearly four-hour-long powerhouse film centered around the titular character’s grueling, repetitive lifestyle. Similar to Akerman’s magnum opus, “The Assistant” is slow and, at times, undeniably boring, as it recounts a single day in the life of its protagonist. But this is exactly why it’s effective. The audience is there to observe, to feel the strong undercurrent of misogyny running through Jane’s office and notice the subtlety with which it is perpetuated. We watch as Jane finds a discarded earring in her boss’ office, retrieved later by a hurried, visibly troubled woman whom she has never met. We see her accompany a naive, unqualified new hire to a hotel where the boss will then meet the young woman in a situation poised for him to take sexual advantage of her. We witness Jane’s growing discomfort and her eventual visit to the Human Resources department and we continue watching as the manager dismisses her claims in a brutal show of manipulation.

Jane’s employer is never identified by name or shown on screen, and his voice is rarely heard. Despite this, the implied presence of Harvey Weinstein, founder of Miramax and The Weinstein Company, who has been accused of abuse and rape by over a hundred women, feels impossible to dismiss. “The Assistant” premiered almost two years after Weinstein was first publicly accused and less than a month before he was charged for third degree rape and first degree criminal sexual acts by the New York County District Attorney’s Office. These charges stemmed from two accusers, Jessica Mann and Miriam Haleyi, whose experiences mirror those of the women depicted in Green’s film.

With its bland set design and lack of explicit references, however, “The Assistant” is able to comment on both Weinstein and the general prevalence of powerful men using their status to coerce and assault women. The boss could be anyone because the office could be anywhere and the business could be anything. Green chooses to conceal Jane’s employer, and, in turn, the world around him is emphasized. If this film is about Weinstein at all, it’s about the system that protected him for so long.

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