The Assistant Review: A Brutal Condemnation of Complicity

The Assistant Julia Garner in The Assistant. (Bleecker Street)

Kitty Green’s latest incisively explores the systems that protect predators, resulting in something more than a simple Weinstein allegory.

As a printer churns out women’s headshots, none of them look particularly similar. Their hair colors vary. Some of them are angled a little differently. One of them stands out because she’s holding her hand to her chin, but their demeanors are the kind of neutral that most viewers would try projecting a sharper emotion onto. Part of the issue, however, is that the emotions in question aren’t sharp. They’re throbbing, constant, quiet. They’re easy to feel but hard to unpack.

Such goes the day of Jane (Julia Garner), a Northwestern University graduate and aspiring producer who’s been at her current job for five weeks. First one in, last one out—it’s par for the course as she helps at the New York office of a bigwig movie mogul whose name is never revealed. Instead, people refer to him with an almost-divine quality: “He’s in there,” “He wants you.” The pronoun itself feels capitalized whenever it’s spoken, and even if that isn’t the case, that bludgeoning feeling is what says the most. And Jane knows it.

Instead, she stays in her lane and examines rooms upon entrance. One assistant (Noah Robbins) sits at Jane’s one-o’-clock position while another (Jon Orsini) sits directly to her right. They toss tasks her way out of sheer apathy; they interject only when they can tell her what to say. All the while, Kitty Green, directing her first scripted feature, scans locations through a procession of static shots, blending symmetry, low angles, and careful framing. People may be aware of stuff going on here, but that doesn’t mean heads ever turn.

The Assistant

That “stuff,” as it so happens, is a pattern of young, vulnerable women and the meetings behind closed doors they’re subjected to. Comparisons between the producer and Harvey Weinstein are inevitable (and plenty are already out there), but such a link would oversimplify the material at hand. The Assistant instead works because everyone and everything is so archetypal. From the women in the headshots to Jane herself, Green’s script deftly divides victim from perpetrator without giving in to sensationalism. Better yet, it’s a story that dares to condemn those who are complicit as much as it does its main antagonist.

Without such an angle, The Assistant may have fallen in the school of great films that succeed more on execution than singularity. Michael Lathan bathes each scene in a warm, fluorescent fog that makes the air all that much heavier and Green, who also co-edited the movie with Blair McClendon, never lets go of her pace. Unapologetic in her repetition at points but constantly feeding the viewer with more context and details, she builds upon her previous documentary work while gently pulling from the likes of Chantal Akerman and Gus Van Sant.

But Green’s movie does have a different perspective. The boss’s misconduct is never depicted or explicitly detailed, and there’s never an inclination that either would be constructive. Rather, it’s the jokes about it that are detailed. It’s the “locker room talk,” as some might call it, in which normalization is another shade of dehumanization. It’s the unseen power disparities that are felt but never seen, and it’s the gaslighting that goes into protecting them. It’s the point at which others’ refusal to believe breeds a morbid curiosity of the assailant.

Unapologetic in her repetition at points but constantly feeding the viewer with more context and details, [Green] builds upon her previous documentary work while gently pulling from the likes of Chantal Akerman and Gus Van Sant.

And yet the hardest scenes are often the calmest. The Assistant is never an enjoyable watch and it lacks even the empty catharsis of something like Jeanne Dielman, but like similar movies, that anxiety manifests itself in the mundane. The crispness of the sounds, the irritation at others talking during a moment of concentration—it all finds a vessel in Garner’s performance. There’s a moral compass to her, a heat inside of her. It’s only when her deportment starts to freeze over that it starts leaking out.

So how much more does Jane have left to give? That remains to be seen, but maybe someone will see it tomorrow. As for now, she’s just the last one to leave the building. 

The Assistant is now playing in select theaters and continues expanding in the coming weeks.

The Assistant Trailer:

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