The Assistant (2019)
Words by Hiba Akmal
The Assistant (2019)
When director Kitty Green was looking to cast the protagonist of her upcoming movie, she needed someone ‘infinitely watchable'. Enter Julia Garner and her meticulous portrayal of an aspiring young film producer who finds herself at the beck and call of a veteran predator.
When director Kitty Green was looking to cast the protagonist of her upcoming movie, she needed someone ‘infinitely watchable.’ Enter Julia Garner and her meticulous portrayal of the reserved but conflicted Jane. An aspiring young film producer who works an entry-level job at the beck and call of an unnamed, powerful entertainment mogul. The Assistant is a dire indictment of the sexist power structures that govern corporate America. It looms in the spectre of the disgraced Harvey Weinstein and the reckoning against sexual abuse his demise unleashed - #metoo. Note, this is not however a film about Harvey Weinstein, it is a film about the infrastructure of silence and complicity that was both built by and now preserves predators like him. In ‘The Assistant’, the reach of this insidious force is devastatingly unravelled from the perspective of a recent college grad who stands at the bottom of its perverted hierarchy.
In contrast to the shattering nature of its content, the film’s cinematic method is muted, cold, and clinical. The message - corporate America is morally bankrupt. The entire film is garmented in drab, bleak tones. Monotonous hues of grey colour every suit and tie, every bland office wall, all awash in sterile white lighting. Jane dons a demure nude-pink turtle neck with slack corduroy bottoms. The only visual reprieve we get comes from the attractive young women who strut in and out of the office for ‘appointments’ with ‘the boss.’ Structurally, the film denies us much of the usual events that punctuate narrative - there is no catharsis, reward, no resolution. No accountability. Why? The method of storytelling consciously replicates the subject it documents. Kitty Green is otherwise a documentary filmmaker. Thus true to the un-quashed reality of abuses of power and sexual exploitation - “The Assistant” sternly refuses any false invocation of justice.
Dialogue likewise is minimal, making palpable the sense of silence and alienation that visibly torments Jane. This is where the feat of Garner’s performance really comes to shine. With the film an extension of her perspective, using little to no verbal cues to convey her distress and the implicit nuances of sexual misconduct at play, we rely entirely on Jane’s expressions and gestures to piece together the depravity that is taking place amidst the banal day to day of office routine.
Although we don’t see much of her, Sienna’s arrival precipitates the film’s central exposée. The ‘very pretty...very young’ girl from small-town Boise, Idaho plays the Ingenue. A virginal sacrificial lamb who, having caught the attention of the lusting predator is lured to New York with the promise of fame and fortune. Although recruited as an assistant, her work is far from the drudgery of Jane’s corporate confinement. Her first (unspecified) task is to be performed at the glitzy Mark Hotel, replete with a custom outfit freshly delivered from the dry cleaner. It is Jane’s job to prepare and transport her to meet, yes, the boss. In the scene prior, we see Sienna directed by a detached company agent to sign here, here, and there on her contract. Do I need a lawyer? She asks as she commits herself to the role.
Yes, nothing is explicitly disclosed, but it needn’t be. The chilling affirmation comes from the twisted reassurance offered by a veteran jaded female employee. ‘Don’t worry she says, ‘she’ll be more out of it than he is.’
Yet the most crushing scene of the entire film occurs when Jane recourses to HR, no longer able to deny what she has unwittingly become a part of. For a brief moment, we hold out hope that the resigned nihilism of the film will be rescued by the arrival of honesty and justice. That doesn’t happen. The officer proceeds to gaslight Jane’s concerns, suggesting the demands of the entry-level role are confusing her perception. He advises her that if she wants to get ahead, rather than file a complaint with him, she should understand that whatever she thinks she sees, never actually happened. As she retreats gingerly from his office we get the second chilling affirmation -’ Don’t worry - you’re probably not his type anyway.’ The film closes on a scene with the boss flying out to LA on the next call of business.
In watching this film, one particular headline came harkening back to me iterated in various forms all across the news-media world - Harvey Weinstein was Hollywood’s ‘Open Secret.’ Not only did his abuse span the multiple decades of his career, but it was also quietly guarded by those, around him. And those without the privilege of power were duly placated with the fear of repercussion. This is what Green so disturbingly documents in The Assistant. The self-perpetuating power of the system - regenerating itself through the routine initiation of untainted entrants like The Assistant.