THE ASSISTANT: A Chilling Workplace Drama

Kitty Green’s film takes on toxic bosses and the staff who look away

A young woman walks out of a lit house and into the darkness of early morning at the open of The Assistant. The quiet drama, which stunned at last year’s Sundance, opens in Austin this weekend. Emmy-winner Julia Garner (Ozark, Dirty John) stars as Jane, assistant to an unnamed production mogul.

Events in Kitty Green’s (Casting JonBenet) film play out in one day in the early months of Jane’s career. The Assistant unspools in an unhurried manner while Jane completes repetitive tasks, calling to mind Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. The monotony of such work is interrupted by the casual cruelty of her boss and office-mates.

There are hints as to the true nature of her employer, although he’s never shown onscreen. Jane finds a dropped earring on his office floor and has to clean spots off his couch. We hear his voice through the receiver of her phone as he berates her for talking to his upset wife. His impatience and verbal abuse set the tone for her dealings with other staff, especially after Jane becomes discomfited by a younger, unqualified woman she’s instructed to set up in the office as another assistant.

A meeting with HR (Matthew Macfadyen) proves disastrous as Jane’s position and future come under threat. When she shows actresses in for meetings, it reminds us of the lost talent, the performances we’ll never get to see because a man abused his position of power.

In a recorded exchange with a woman he’d previously assaulted, Harvey Weinstein excused his behavior by saying “I’m used to that.” This phrase came to mind as I watched the duplicity of the staff around Jane and their willful ignorance. There’s no doubt the boss is based on Weinstein; the rape culture in Jane’s office is so ingrained that even seeing a man condescendingly pat her on the shoulder made me flinch.

The script refuses to explicitly spell everything out, yet provides enough uncomfortable evidence of a toxic working environment. Writer/director Green creates an insular work that moves so quietly the loud moments come as a shock. The Assistant is disturbing in its depiction of Jane’s everyday, calling the viewer to pay attention. It’s an unsettling film that will stay with me for a long while.

The Assistant opens in Austin on Fri, Feb. 14 at Arbor Great Hills.

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