Updated: Aug 14, 2020
“I appreciate the continued opportunity to work here and I will not let you down again.” This is how Jane ends not one, but two emails to her dark specter of a boss in a single day. Kitty Green’s chilling drama The Assistant focuses not on those in power or the horrible things they do, but on the plethora of mechanisms working to protect them.
The Assistant takes us through one single day in the life of Jane (beautifully performed by Julia Garner), a recent college graduate who just started working as a junior assistant for a very powerful executive of a film production company. Jane is not even two months into the job, but she is keyed in to the simultaneously dull and straining routine- coming into the office before dawn and leaving late at night, setting out donuts and then cleaning up the crumbs, dealing with angry phone calls from the boss’s wife and then angry calls from the boss when he doesn’t like how she dealt with them. Everything Jane does, while unpleasant, is par for the course for her, until a very young and inexperienced assistant (Kristine Froseth) is hired directly by the boss. A simultaneously speculative and crystal clear series of events awakens Jane to the fact that something is very wrong.
Green places the world in New York City, but it is not the lively, chaotically glamorous one that it’s often portrayed to be. When Jane drives through the city, there is an unnerving stillness to the world, a coldness and lack of humanity amongst the tall grey buildings and slowly falling snow. Though there is nothing “wrong,” it feels like a dystopian nightmare with the overwhelming sense that some greater dark and icy force has taken hold, and the stillness in the air is not an indication of peace, but rather of that force’s success. Things are no better inside the office, where nearly all of the film takes place. Harsh white fluorescents flood every room, lending to a sense that the environment is soul-sucking, very little left for individuality or expression in a grey-white void that energetically drains.
On a surface level, this grey-white mundanity extends to the events of the film, filled with the almost minute-to-minute daily responsibilities of her job- nothing ever actually “happens” in The Assistant. Jane sends emails, listens to garbled phone calls, and starts a report with HR that’s never submitted. Even when she calls her mom in a state of despair, she almost instantly realizes that she doesn’t quite know what she would say. Because the film is from Jane’s perspective alone, we never see any sexual abuse take place; we never even hear it described. And yet we learn with certainty, right along with Jane, that it is happening. Green poses the silence and these horrific, eventful non-events as the greatest danger, focusing not on the predatory behavior itself but everything in its orbit allowing it to go on. The events are hidden in eerie breadcrumbs of knowledge: mumbled jokes about the office couch, single forgotten earrings, mysterious, incomplete checks. Bidding is done without it ever being asked for.
But Jane is new, only just becoming aware of what goes on in the shadows, and when she does try to take action by going to Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), an HR representative, the failed outcome is an immaculately fine, chilling case study of how institutional oppression works. Jane knows that she is right, and so does he, but through expert gaslighting he reduces it to baseless nonsense and conjecture on paper with an effortlessness that is maddening to watch. Regardless, it is ultimately obvious that even if Jane had detailed proof, it wouldn’t matter, as he squashes her arguments with a single loaded question: “Why are you in here trying to throw it all away?” It is this question, packed with meaning, that keeps Jane down and keeps people at all levels guarding those at the top. As an aspiring producer fresh to the industry, silence can mean the difference between a successful career and being blacklisted. None of this is said outright because it doesn’t have to be; the reason and reward for silence is ingrained into company culture. When the executive finds out, his short, verbally abusive phone call is enough to keep her scared, and his follow-up email, short and only vaguely encouraging, is enough to motivate her to stay and stay quiet. “I’m sorry,” he writes, “I’m tough on you because I’m going to make you great.”
We never actually see his face; we don’t even know his name- the most we get is his voice over muffled phone calls or a glimpse of his body when he walks in and out of rooms, gliding across the screen like a shark fin through water. This is in part a statement on power: the fact that he can be referred to without his name and yet everyone always knows who is being spoken about, or his ability to loom over the office like a dark cloud even while remaining absent- these are indicators of his influence. But more importantly, the lack of focus on the mogul himself is a very purposeful choice by Green to keep the big picture in view. It would be easy to think of the character as a Harvey Weinstein stand-in of sorts, but I believe this is counterintuitive to the filmmakers’ intentions. When a piece of media focuses on a specific predator or their horrible acts in a sensationalized manner, this creates a clear villain, allowing an audience to watch and mark him as the problem. It oversimplifies and absolves many of blame: “I don’t do that, so I’m ok.” “I’ve never seen that myself, so my workplace is ok.” “Harvey Weinstein is gone, so it’s ok.” The Assistant does not allow the blame to be shifted to a single person but instead exposes a deeper institutional and systemic poison that trickles all the way down into day to day minutiae, a coworker's encouragement of apology emails that aren’t owed or clipped meetings in HR that deny a problem even exists. The film’s depiction of silence and everyday, normalized acts of complicity gets under the skin by telling the unsettling truth that evil executives can only exist with the help of those around them and a system that lifts them up. “What can we do?” Jane finally asks Wilcock. He replies: “Do about what?”