The Assistant: A Film Uninterested in Catharsis
The spectre of Harvey Weinstein looms large over Kitty Green’s The Assistant, despite the intentional obfuscation of his stand-in. Referred to only as “him,” the unnamed New York producer appears only in the form of brief out-of-focus shots, muffled phone tirades, and manipulative emails, but his presence and the corporate environment he has cultivated permeate the film like a vampiric plague, making resistance seem all but futile. This holds especially true for Jane (Julia Garner), five weeks into her job as one of the producer’s low-level assistants. We follow her through the course of one lengthy day as she handles menial tasks, tolerates the quiet sexism of her male peers, and runs interference in regards to the producer’s wife, whose phone calls demanding to know her husband’s whereabouts become increasingly more irate. Setting the film almost entirely in a grimly gray office building, Green and cinematographer Michael Latham do their best to stifle the audience with a desaturated palette befitting of both the New York winter and the oppressive culture within which Jane struggles to succeed (or at least survive). The camera’s focus primarily oscillates between Jane’s face, maximizing Garner’s talent for subtle expressiveness, and her point of view, forcing us to confront the dehumanizing microaggressions she (and by extension, countless women across the country) is subjected to on a daily basis but silently endures. For Jane to do otherwise — to advocate for a workplace free of inequality, misogyny, harassment, and abuse — is to jeopardize her career and her dream of becoming a producer herself one day, a point driven home by the film’s key scene, a meeting with the company’s Human Resources representative that makes it abundantly clear that these types of organizations are structured in a manner that ensures the powerful remain unchecked and any discord is dealt with ruthlessly and efficiently. It’s a sequence that’s hard to watch: the apex of our empathy for our protagonist, caught in a web of unchecked and disgusting power beyond what she must have ever imagined when she took this job. Our empathy extends past Jane as well, even to those who make her life miserable — from the downtrodden woman talking despondently about the possibility of finding another job as she casually hands her used coffee mug to Jane to clean, to the entitled coworker returning to his desk in near tears after being berated by the boss, the film takes great pains to show us that most everyone is just trying to get by. However, the film’s devious trick is that, though we of course side with Jane, the ultimate future we see for her isn’t one in which she speaks out and brings down an industry predator. Instead, we see her fate staring back at her from the faces of the men and women higher up the food chain: employed by that predator for years, they know exactly what is happening behind closed doors but choose to ignore it because the alternative threatens their own careers, their own hopes and dreams. They rationalize it to themselves — “she’s a grown woman” or “they get more out of it than he does” — because otherwise the cognitive dissonance of complicity would be too much to bear. The Assistant succeeds because its purpose isn’t cathartic, it's anthropological: by laying bear the type of mundane structures that allow this type of abuse to exist, Green forces us to look inward and ask ourselves if we would truly have the conviction to confront the hegemony, or if we’d laugh nervously and avert our eyes when it mattered most.