The Assistant (2020) - Kitty Green
Kitty Green's masterful The Assistant is a quiet, understated masterpiece that could be easily dismissed by those not attuned to its brilliance and power. Telling the story of a young junior assistant to a powerful New York-based movie mogul, the film unfolds over the course of one, long, exhausting day. Jane (mesmerizingly and magnificently portrayed by Julia Garner) wakes and leaves for work long before sunrise. She is the first in the office, and the last to leave. When she arrives she carries out menial tasks getting the office ready for the arrival of staff and ultimately the producer for whom she works. We never actually meet her boss. The closest we come is a quick glance at him as he arrives in the office. His arrival announced by a tensing of the staff in the office. We also hear his voice raging down the phone at Jane throughout the day following escalating transgressions in her performance.
The film majestically explores the #metoo movement and more broadly the institutionalized sexism, bullying, and toxic environment of the film world that facilitates and makes complicit everyone involved in film production. What makes The Assistant a masterpiece, and a defining, landmark film of the movement is that in focusing in on a single day, and a single assistant Kitty Green is able to use this small, intimate and personal story as a platform for exposing and exploring the bigger and more corrosive issues at the heart of modern film production. No one wants a film about Harvey Weinstein. And no one wants a film about a sexual predator in a production company abuses his power to take advantage of women. By focusing on the assistant, Green is able to map the systems and structures in place that allow such behavior to become prolific without directly calling attention to them. In one early scene, before anyone else has arrived at the office, Jane pulls on rubber gloves, and using a stain remover cleans her bosses' couch. It's unclear what stain she is removing, and the scene plays out in the middle of other menial tasks; cleaning out bins, photocopying, washing up dishes, etc. that feels commonplace. But the implication is almost overwhelming. Especially come the film's conclusion when Jane is told she can leave while her boss holds a meeting with young, beautiful women.
Because of her position, Jane has no power and no voice. She almost haunts the film, drifting through rooms, unseen and unacknowledged, except perhaps as an annoyance. In one scene she is washing up in the small kitchen and two women enter chatting. When they finish their leave their mugs and plates behind, not even seeming to notice Jane's presence. She quietly collects the mug and plate and adds it to her washing up. Later in a lift, Patrick Wilson (listed as Famous Actor in the credits) gets in. They both wait silently. Jane wanting some form of engagement, but Wilson just scrolls through his phone. It's through this lens, of Jane as an almost ghostlike figure, that the story unfolds. We overhear or catch snippets of conversations. The beginning of production meetings, the signing of a Non-Disclosure Agreement, etc. that Jane begins to piece together to extent of abuse that she is unwittingly complicit in allowing to happen. And Garner's performance meticulously charts every thought, emotion, and feeling subtlely across her face and body language, as the weight of the revelations (and the exhaustion of the day).
When colleagues do talk to her, mainly through her two male assistant colleagues, they are patronizing, belittling, and sexist. But never overtly. They offer support, telling her to always go to them first. But these are not olive branches offered by more experienced staff to the new girl. They are subtle acts of control and gender bias. Reinforcing the systems of control the all-seeing and overbearing (yet absent) producer exerts over the staff. These men know that to get ahead they have to play by the rules, and in doing so they knowingly become part of the problem. They reinforce the institutional bias by making her carry out tasks they deem more suitable for women. Jane, for example, has to fend off the producer's suspicious and irate wife. Another interesting scene as Jane caring for children of another production assistant.
The story takes a turn, and Jane feels compelled to act when she learns of a new assistant joining the business. Arriving from Idaho, the young girl is met by Jane and escorted to a hotel where the producer has put her up. Jane, suspicious of her boss's intentions seek advice and action from her HR manager. A brilliantly slimy performance from Matthew MacFayden. This scene is the pinnacle achievement of the film. A masterfully written, acted, and directed scene where Wilcock (Macfayden) moves effortlessly from concerned and approachable to manipulative and aggressive until finally in the scenes final line the true scale of complicity and cover-up of her bosses actions are revealed. It's a masterclass in performance and writing and left me feeling disgusted, upset, and almost unable to watch the film. How the tone and nature of the conversation moves and is twisted by Wilcock and how he makes Jane feel threatened, over-reacting, and then pulls her into the companies complicity makes it one of the best scenes in recent cinema.
The consequences of Jane's actions don't take long to filter down to the wider business, and we again see just how manipulative and controlling her boss can be, even in absentia, and how the entire business is part of the control.
As we edge closer to the end of the day it becomes evident that this film is not going to offer up any disingenuous catharsis. Jane's plight will continue as long as she keeps her job, and she may have sealed her own fate by seeking support from HR. The film leaves you exhausted, shocked, and despairing for Jane, and by extension and entire industry into which young women like Jane aspire to enter.
The Assistant is a formidable, bracing, and captivating masterpiece. The subtly of its storytelling may be lost on some, which is a shame, as its in the subtly and understated approach to the material that Kitty Green is able to deliver a film of such power. It is a landmark film and one which may become the defining masterpiece of the #metoo movement. An absolute, if utterly depressing masterpiece.