“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting.” – Judith Lewis Herman
From acclaimed Aussie documentarian, Kitty Green, director of the award winning film Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, comes a raw character study on the cycle and impact of sexism and workplace harassment in the film industry. Helmed at the peak of the ‘Me Too’ wave and propelled by the explosive Weinstein scandal, Green leads us through a day in the life of Jane (Ozark’s Julia Garner), an aspiring film producer and junior assistant to a nameless chairman, as she witnesses a string of odd events and pieces together clues that suggest her boss is habitually abusing his power.
Using her background as a documentarian, Green’s first foray into fictional filmmaking was as meticulously researched as her previous works. In the year following the Weinstein scandal, Green spoke with a number of women about their experiences in the film and television industry, noting a distinct pattern in the way high ranking executives singled out low level female employees and exploited them for personal gains. In her own words, this film evolved to become a “composite of the thousands of stories I’d heard” and it’s because of this that Green’s story holds a different kind of energy and power.
The film opens on Jane making her early morning commute to work, a film production company, that could easily be mistaken for a now maligned Miramax, situated in a few buildings in Lower Manhattan, New York City. Relatively new to her job with only 5 weeks under her belt, Jane is relegated to all the menial tasks of fetching lunch and coffee, collecting the mail deliveries, cleaning up the office and organising her boss’ schedule. Her two fellow (male) assistants do little to alleviate her work load, often patronisingly setting her up to take abusive phone calls, dictating her apology emails when she steps out of line, and throwing wads of balled up paper to get her attention rather than just saying her name. Despite being mostly settled into her role in the company, Jane is still meek and underappreciated, and Garner expresses this powerfully with soft stutters, sighs and micro-expressions. We can often see wheels turning behind Jane‘s eyes, forming thoughts that she then files away in favour of stock standard pleasantries. The resigned “I was here” when asked how her weekend was or the half smile she gives when invited for after-work drinks that everyone knows she can’t attend. But all this is to be expected when you score your dream job in one of the toughest industries.
Throughout Jane’s very long day there is this looming sense of oppression, of something being not quite right and of everybody being aware (and forgiving) of it. Subtle glances, whispers, stray earrings on the office floor and mysterious stains on the Chairman’s couch – “don’t sit there… never sit on the couch” – that Jane has to clean. Where Green’s The Assistant differs from other Me Too era films such as 2019’s Bombshell is that the oppressive presence of the villain and his indiscretions always remains unrevealed. After all, this film isn’t about how the Chairman abuses his power, but how he’s created an environment that allows him to continue doing so.
The film works entirely through inference and allusions, filling the atmosphere with a brooding subtext that must be picked apart entirely through context clues and Garner’s expressiveness. Phone calls are muffled but ominous, conversations simply heard in passing or muted and distorted are to put you squarely in Jane’s frazzled mind as she makes photocopies and cleans dishes. It’s an effective approach to such a topic. Instinctively we are aware that big and inappropriate things are occurring behind closed doors and on business trips and in uptown hotels, and yet there’s no concrete proof for us to cling to and say, “See! We told you!”
When Jane finally plucks up the courage to expose what she believes to be happening within and beyond the office walls we are given the distinct pleasure of seeing Garner go head to head with the brilliant Matthew Macfadyen as the Human Resources representative Wilcock. Brilliantly written by Green, the whole scene plays out like a masterclass in gaslighting. As Jane opens up to Wilcock we can’t help but watch in disgust as he smoothly produces a rebuttal for everything she says, turning her concerns into a fable of jealousy before dangling her career goals in front of her as a means to keep her compliant. And then, just as we think he couldn’t be more callous, there’s the acknowledgement that what we believe is true, “You don’t have to worry. You’re not his type.”
Bringing us back full circle, The Assistant leaves off without the kind of resolution many would crave in a Hollywood film, but this is what makes Green’s film so affecting. Where a similar film would take you by the hand and lead you through the narrative, Green bares only the smallest kernels of information for you to collect and configure on your own, assuring you that you’re smart enough to read between even the blurriest of lines. It’s so firmly rooted in reality, forcing us to remember that men like him so frequently abuse their power and coerce those around them into guarding their secrets, that when they are exposed they almost never see justice, and that when victims of these assaults come forward they are so rarely believed because it’s just part of the game that they signed up to play.
The Assistant is available on streaming services and is in Australian cinemas now.