3 Jun 2020

The Assistant

From At The Movies, 7:33 pm on 3 June 2020

Dan Slevin reviews a drama about a young woman who discovers her Hollywood executive boss is a monster.

Dan Slevin: Back in 1975, Steven Spielberg rewrote the rules of the horror film by hiding the monster until the very last minute.

Despite the fact that he only came up with that solution because the giant model shark didn't work properly, suspense became the key and now we are accustomed to a slow build-up and only getting glimpses of what scares us.

In Kitty Green's new workplace horror The Assistant, the monster never appears at all but the evidence for him is all around as if we were travelling through the forest looking for Frankenstein's monster and all we can see are broken trees and smashed cottages.

Except... the trees and cottages in this scenario are the hopes and dreams of ordinary working people.

The Assistant takes place over one very long day at the New York offices of a reasonable-sized motion picture production company.

In the office of the chairman, there are several assistants and at the bottom of the pecking order is the newly arrived Jane (played by Julia Garner).

Young, ambitious (but not aggressively so), she starts early - Ubering in from Astoria Queens to Manhattan every morning before dawn - and finishes late, not leaving until the boss has gone.

In the meantime, she fetches lunches for her colleagues, photocopies scripts, books travel on the executive jet to Hollywood (but not for her) and occasionally gets to eat the leftover doughnuts off the meeting room table.

Details are everything in this film, so many ghastly moments that must have been plucked from life, but the build-up of suspense in the movie comes from the slow accumulation of evidence that her boss is a monstrous predator and that the entire office seems to be set up to enable that behaviour, if not condone it.

At the heart of the film is a terrific performance by Garner who I first saw in an amazing little film called Electrick Children a few years ago where she played a Mormon teenage girl who thought she had been made pregnant by listening to a cassette tape of popular music.

She has very few lines in this film - nobody does, the soundtrack is mostly made up of distant office hubbub or copying machines - but the carries the awful balance act of anyone in a situation like that in her eyes the whole time. There's so much competition for jobs in the film industry that it is all too easy to turn a blind eye to abuses of power and then slowly to become complicit in it.

All her colleagues know that damage is being done to women throughout the company but it is simply career suicide to call it out.

The writer and director of The Assistant, Kitty Green, has been around independent films for a long time - she made the famous documentaries Casting Jon Benet and Ukraine is Not a Brothel so she would have been hyper-aware of the behaviour of the executive that this film seems to be inspired by, Harvey Weinstein.

The shadow of his story - and the fact that he hadn't even gone on trial while The Assistant was in production and that therefore there was no guarantee that any justice was going to be done for his victims - looms over the film as it must loom over the entire industry.

Or over workplaces generally, if you think about it. Power is used and abused everywhere you go and you might - depending on your workplace situation - ask yourself why you'd choose to spend another hour and a half in a toxic work environment after you've just finished at your own for the day.

I can't make that call for you, but The Assistant is haunting, deliberate and sympathetic to almost everyone in the film whose choices are so difficult.

Watching the film at a time when economic forces are likely to take even more power away from vulnerable workers was extra sobering.


Kitty Green on her new film The Assistant (Saturday Morning, 3 May 2020)

THE ASSISTANT is rated M for offensive language & sexual themes. It's playing at select cinemas around the country now.