PARK CITY, Utah — In the world of Kitty Green’s The Assistant, there’s an assumption that everyone has a price. Money can make people speak up, shut up, lie, or submit to treatment they may otherwise deem abusive. For those with economic leverage, anything is possible. But for those lacking this power, being manipulated is a matter of course.
Such is the case for Jane (Julia Garner), the titular assistant at a New York entertainment firm who works for an unnamed, and unseen executive. Referred to only as “him,” Jane’s boss exerts varying degrees of power over everyone around him. As an intern, Jane is the lowest on the totem pole, experiencing the brunt of his mistreatment. While she may be unpaid, Jane’s employer hints at the promise of a future high-powered job as a means to control her. So when Jane, an aspiring producer, witnesses what she believes to be sexual abuse — in forms that are both subtle and decidedly not — her company deploys an array of tactics to decidedly dissuade her from speaking up.
The Assistant is full of sounds and sayings instantly recognizable to anyone who’s worked in an office: the buzz of fluorescent lights, the tapping of keyboards, the incessant ringing of phones. These noises are amplified to the extent that they evolve into a sort of anti-ASMR — they may not be loud, but over time they escalate into a penetrating scream. Likewise, the seemingly small incidents of sexual harassment that Jane witnesses pile up over time. Green presents us with a universal experience, one that’s been hard to put into words and consequently, difficult to prosecute. By dropping us into a profoundly realistic portrait of what many women actually endure, she attempts to tell the story in a language we can understand.
While the Harvey Weinstein scandal was in large part what inspired the project, the film’s faceless, nameless villain ends up serving as a sort of stand-in for the more substantial problem of widespread workplace abuse. In conducting research for the film, Green interviewed women in an array of industries. “The women I spoke with all discussed their frustration with the machinery that surrounded these predators and the culture that supports violence and discrimination against women,” Green says. “ I believe challenging the system that allows these predators to thrive is an important step in bringing about the change that the #MeToo movement is focused on.”
The Assistant is as much about societal acceptance of sexual misconduct as it is about the indignities that many workers face in the office, especially younger women. While many women may be used to people commenting on their looks, speaking over them, and excluding them from important meetings, everyone has their breaking point.
When we meet Jane, she’s reached her limit. One of the most quietly disturbing scenes in the film takes place when Jane brings her concerns to an HR representative played by Matthew Macfadyen, who carries over some of the mannerisms of slimy corporate gatekeepers he’s perfected from his work on the TV series Succession. He deftly convinces her that bringing attention to the misdeeds she’s witnessed will only end badly for her. And just in case she wasn’t sure whose side he was really on, he casually tosses his own unsavory remark her way, in an effort to quell any fears that she might fall victim to her boss’s abuses: “You’re not his type,” he says. It’s moments like these when it becomes clear that this is not a story of heroism, but of the obstacles that money can build to keep even the most intrepid characters from enacting any real change.
The Assistant (dir. Kitty Green) is now in theaters nationwide, in addition to screening at the Sundance Film Festival through February 1.