If there’s one thing you need to know about documentarian Kitty Green’s painfully quiet debut narrative feature, it’s that silence is deafening — and frustrating as hell.
The Assistant chronicles an exhaustive day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner, Netflix’s “Ozark”), a bleary-eyed college graduate who’s working her way up as a junior assistant in a fast-paced New York City film production company. From the onset, it’s clear that she’s overworked and undervalued by her apathetic co-workers and, more importantly, by her wildly demanding and often abusive boss. Any joy she might have once felt to work there has been completely zapped — she operates like a demoralized cog in a deeply toxic machine and embodies her internal rage with soul-crushing perfection.
We tediously observe everything that happens to Jane over the course of her day, via one soulless task after another. Her laborious monotony ranges from constantly cleaning up crumbs to copying and distributing scripts to arranging travel plans and even entertaining (e.g., making horse sounds with) her boss’s children. She’s also tasked with the wildly inappropriate jobs of stocking erectile dysfunction medication in her boss’s office, disinfecting his couch each morning and cleaning up any evidence of yesterday’s sexual misconduct. Through these chores, it’s made abundantly clear that her work is unfairly gendered and that the demands required of her are nothing short of unprofessional and misogynistic.
Unnamed and unseen, Jane’s media mogul boss — clearly based on the likes of Harvey Weinstein — looms large over everyone he interacts with. His muffled, menacing insults on the office phone are intended to intimidate Jane and viewers alike, effectively creating a hostile atmosphere that feels as fraught and vulnerable as our main character.
Everyone in the office seems to know what’s going on and has either resigned to be at peace with it or endure it in order to stay on the fast track to success. Even Jane’s most immediate co-workers know how to write up an apology email at the drop of a hat, including the exact “mea culpa” verbiage that the boss demands, and help her do so without thinking twice. She seems to be the only one who isn’t immune to his abuse (yet) and struggles to find solace in her punishing silence.
At her breaking point and the supposed climax of the film, Jane arranges to meet with her HR representative, played with equal parts concern and condescension by Matthew Macfayden (HBO’s “Succession”). In this impromptu midday meeting, Jane anxiously expresses her concern for a particular young woman/newly minted assistant, as she has obviously been hired for more than just her work ethic. As Jane clumsily makes her claims with little evidence of actual wrongdoing and relies primarily on office hearsay, Macfayden’s character (also unnamed) grows increasingly annoyed and attempts to redirect the conversation onto Jane’s future within the company. It’s a tactic many working people are familiar with — women especially — and most directly demonstrates the level of disrespect bestowed onto those who rank lower in the workplace hierarchy. Clearly, his primary focus is the health of the company, not of any one worker specifically, and he says as much to her directly.
Macfayden’s appearance, perhaps the most poignant scene in The Assistant, is topped by a wickedly condescending gesture of offering tissues during Jane’s most vulnerable moment — a deeply unsubtle caveat for her to maintain her composure, lest she “come off” as hysterical. The tense meeting ends with the brutally disturbing sentiment that Jane needn’t worry any longer, for she is definitely not her boss’s “type.”
This exchange makes it clear that this film is positioning itself as a direct response to the Weinstein sexual assault allegations of 2017 and the cultural unraveling spurred by the #MeToo movement thereafter. Though the intention of the film is noble and necessary in the current socio-political climate, the tone feels far too muted and oblique to spark any genuinely new discourse. The pivotal scene between Garner and Macfayden establishes so much dramatic tension (in an overwhelmingly muted film) that when it’s over, the remainder of the film feels painfully flat by comparison.
Though Garner delivers an exquisitely restrained and realistic performance amid the unfortunate constraints of limited dialogue and an emaciated plot, the burden (through no fault of her own) seems too large for her to carry. Her almost entirely internalized portrayal leaves so much unspoken that it forces viewers to do much of the heavy lifting on their own. We must constantly read between the lines to decipher the muted meaning found within every terse response and awkward silence — a big ask for audience members outside the limited scope of independent film. Green’s first dramatic effort aims to highlight the public mistreatment of women in a vein similar to that of her feature documentaries (Ukraine Is Not a Brothel and Casting JonBenet), but its disconnected tone, largely inaudible dialogue, nonexistent music and creeping pace unfortunately do more harm than good.
The Assistant suffers from a significant lack of plot specifics that viewers can sink their teeth into and, as its modus operandi, rests primarily on tedious observation of Jane’s mundane tasks. Because of this approach, it’s too detached and generic to communicate its vital, universal message: that this type of abuse is occurring in workplaces everywhere and we are all complicit in its continued existence.
Instead, the robotic surveillance of Jane’s deadening day feels stagnant and far too restrictive, and pulls focus from the pressing issues of gender politics and shared silence taking place in modern work environments today. It’s disappointing, since a grittier, more daring exploration of this topic is so needed amid today’s tumultuous moral landscape and would do much to ignite an all-too-often muzzled conversation surrounding consent and harassment.
I can’t help but think that this film would have been much more effective if it were presented as a documentary — as it originally began — or even as a short film. Instead, the brief 85-minute run time feels tedious, as it burns at a painfully slow pace with no discernible climax or resolution, and feels anything but galvanizing. Perhaps if there was a more pressing subplot demonstrating the hideous demands of Jane’s ruthless boss or more explicit revelations of sexual misconduct, the subtleties of her silent anguish would have felt that much more impactful. Instead, I was left wanting and waiting for something, anything, to happen.
I suppose the suspense is supposed to lie in the painful monotony of it all, but I felt little other than frustrated and underwhelmed. With a subject matter so culturally aflame, The Assistant could — and should — have been the “searing #MeToo thriller” it’s being touted as. Instead, it suffers in silence, much like its characters — a filmmaking choice that unfortunately feels too reserved to demand a watch, much less a conversation.
Starts Feb. 21 at Grail Moviehouse