I’m going to get this out of the way real quick. Before I begin praising the bejeezus out of this movie, I wanted to say that not a lot visibly happens in The Assistant. A few critical blurbs on the poster and the trailer for Kitty Green’s film tout it as a thriller.
It is that in its own way, but there aren’t any glaring hallmarks of what most moviegoers usually define as “thriller.” For example, my convenient visualization of a thriller is Jimmy Stewart hanging from the side of a tall building in Vertigo or Javier Bardem stalking his prey in No Country for Old Men.
There are moments of blatant thrills to be had in a montage of a person being chased, matched with violin strikes that escalate the tension. Every once in a while, there comes a movie that provides an alternate definition of what a thriller can be. For example, Steven Knight’s Locke revolved around a riveting car ride with Tom Hardy.
There are moments of suspense, mystery, and paranoia but those moments are as repressed as most of the characters that occupy the cramped quarters of the studio they work in.
Essentially I’m saying that I wouldn’t be so hyperbolic as to tell my friends The Assistant is a thriller. I’d probably just say it’s a drama with moments of tension and paranoia.
The film focuses on one day in the life of a film executive’s assistant as she walks a daily tightrope. When we first meet Jane (Julia Garner), she’s climbing into a car early in the morning. She saunters into a building that houses the unnamed movie studio she works for. She’s the first one in as usual. She flicks on all the lights, makes photocopies of scripts, washes dishes, turns on her co-workers’ computers and, for a sliver of time, takes a sip of coffee from her Big Hug Mug.
She also spends time cleaning an unseen stain off her boss’ couch. Considering the jokes her co-workers make, the stain is probably what you think it is. As the day progresses, Jane, only two months into her job, arranges trips for her boss, schedules a meeting for him with another assistant, staves off his angry wife, listens to verbal lashings over the phone, and signs blank checks. When she asks about the checks, she’s essentially told by exhausted co-workers not to worry about it. Signing blank checks is one of a few red flags that she takes notice of that day. The new assistant seems like a victim in the making.
This is a movie based on minimalism. Many scenes occur quietly. Nothing is spelled out; the viewer receives bread crumbs of info. The boss, whom we never really see and only hear in muffled closed door conversations and phone calls, looms over the film, draining his employees.
It doesn’t end on a tidy note. If anything, a viewer may walk away with pangs of frustration and discouragement for Jane. In one of the film’s key scenes, Jane visits HR (Matthew MacFadyen) to lodge a complaint. It’s the first scene where we see Jane confidently voicing her concerns. What follows is a brutal example of gaslighting that whittles her down to nothing. It’s a moment that showcases Garner’s gift. If the Academy Awards have enough memory and taste they’ll consider Garner next year. Her portrayal of Jane is tight and controlled with glimpses of angst bubbling over.
Best known for her subversive documentaries Ukraine Is Not a Brothel and Casting JonBenet, Green uses her talent for cold observation to inform the scenes. Cinematographer Michael Latham also uses his documentary work to capture cold sterility in mostly static shots.
This movie successfully tackles misogyny. It’s been hailed as such but to praise it solely for that is short-sighted. It’s more nuanced than a movie like Bombshell. While the Weinstein scandal obviously looms over the film, complicity in a broken work environment that helps facilitate such abuse is what it’s ultimately about. The Assistant is a gripping drama.
The Assistant — Rated R. Directed by Kitty Green. Starring Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Kristine Froseth, Makenzie Leigh, and Noah Robbins.