I'm only a few days past the point where I finished reading Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey's riveting and incomprehensibly disturbing book "She Said," a book that recounts the investigation that the two New York Times reporters completed that ended Harvey Weinstein's career and helped lead to his current legal charges and trial.
"She Said" was a relentlessly disturbing book, a loud story told in loud, minute detail that left me shattered for days and still gives me chills even as I sit here writing these words.
The Assistant, on the other hand, is a quieter tale. It's almost a gentle cinematic journey about a not so gentle cinematic beast. It is not, at least by name, about Harvey Weinstein. However, if you've read the investigation details and if you've read "She Said" then there can be little doubt that writer/director Kitty Green has used Weinstein as the springboard to tell a story that is far more systemic-wide than simply involving one admittedly powerful entertainment mogul.
In the film, Julia Garner (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Ozark) is Jane, a recent college graduate and aspiring film producer who has landed a dream gig as a junior assistant for the aforementioned powerful entertainment mogul. We meet Jane as she arrives at the production company's offices in lower Manhattan, the sun far from having risen and the darkened offices a strong indication that Jane will be the first to arrive and likely the last to leave. The setting seems initially serene, simple and mundane tasks fill her time until others arrive though there are subtle signs that something is awry that will soon be not so subtle.
You can see on Jane's face that a month into the new gig she already understands the high tension, bubbling over toxicity of the office culture. She's the newbie and handles the undesirable tasks from cleaning stains off the couch in her boss's office to offering hospitality to arriving guests in an office that is far from hospitable. You'll see them. If you know the details of Weinstein's case, you'll realize that some of these activities are practically mirrors of those alleged to be required in Weinstein's office.
She does other things, of course. No, not that. Though, that seems to hang in the air of every single one of Jane's tasks, Jane's conversations, Jane's e-mails, and every single one of Jane's shifts in body language and facial expression. When we first meet Jane, it's obvious that she's already uncomfortable and she's already aware that something isn't right in this office. She hasn't completely identified exactly what is wrong, but she can feel it in her bones that this office is dangerous.
So can we.
The boss in The Assistant remains a mystery presence throughout The Assistant, his office presence not much more than a blur and his phone calls not far removed from a menacing variation of Charlie Brown's teacher.
We don't see him much. We don't hear him much. His presence is felt everywhere.
He, and we do learn that much about him, is a dominating presence and an object of scorn by nearly everyone in the office - at least when he's not around. When he is around, it's an entirely different story. Green, who directed the magnificent feature docs Ukraine is Not a Brothel and Casting JonBenet, obviously understands this system and its power dynamics. She holds back, refusing to dramatize it because living in it is dramatic enough.
This isn't an environment where gender pronouns are a thing. This is an environment where gender roles are in place, enforced, and uncompromising. As a female, Jane will be safe if she's not his type.
The Assistant takes place over the course of one very lengthy day in Jane's life. One day. It was a day I found exhausting just watching it for just under 90 minutes. It was a day that I still can't forget, let alone have to live it again tomorrow. And the day after.
Green's work is masterful here both as writer and director. The environment here is suffocating, but The Assistant doesn't make it obvious. There's no scenes of some sexily clad secretary being chased around a conference table by some out of shape horndog boss. Green's script is way more subtle than that with questionable deeds more implied than obvious, strongly indicated rather than absolutely proven. Everyone knows but nobody knows. The tension is practically unbearable and the suspense literally fills the screen. You can see it and feel it everywhere.
The boss might be a predator, but who knows? Maybe he just pushes because he believes you're destined for great things.
One never knows. Except you know. You know.
Garner's work here is impeccable and this is easily one of early 2020's best performances. The words are sparse, but Garner says volumes with every action, every look, and every action. She wears the tension and the stress and the fear in her eyes. She'll eventually head over to HR to report her suspicions. Matthew MacFadyen's Wilcock will be there. He will listen. He will write things down. It's a beautiful scene, written perfectly and acted sublimely and capturing with rawness all that does happen and all that doesn't happen.
The ensemble cast is strong here, though there's little denying that The Assistant is Julia Garner's film. This is a one woman tour-de-force and the Emmy Award-winning Garner is simply extraordinary here.
D.P. Michael Latham's lensing heightens the drama and lingers so effectively on people and things that it becomes a character in the film. Tamar-kali's original music is eerie and beautiful and even a little comfortable. Rachel Dainer-Best's costume design warrants mention in the way she uses Jane's outfit to enhance the character of Jane and, at times, even to protect her.
You'd have to be a pretty sick bastard to call The Assistant an entertaining film, but there's no denying that it's an important film and an effective film and a memorable film. It's a film I'll most definitely watch again because Green so masterfully fills the screen with subtle hints and little nuances that there's literally no doubt I've missed something and need to see it again.
In many ways, The Assistant brings to life what the book "She Said" reported. That's uncomfortable and frightening and disturbing. Emphasizing quiet power over high drama, writer/director Kitty Green's debut narrative feature is a work of quiet strength and deep revelation. It's a film you may not enjoy, but it's also a film you will not forget.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic