We have had our share of horrible boss movies over the years. Think Swimming With Sharks, The Devil Wears Prada, and yes, Horrible Bosses, all of which featured electrifying performances by the actors who got to push their underlings around. Well now, in the age of Time’s Up and the #MeToo movements, the put-upon support staffer takes center stage and the boss is never seen in documentarian Kitty Green’s breathtakingly powerful narrative debut, The Assistant.
Told strictly from the point of view of Jane (Julia Garner), the film navigates a dawn to dusk day in the life of an assistant at a New York film production company. We start with a car service picking up Jane at 4:30am and taking her to a dark SoHo office building. She turns on lights, makes coffee, prepares paperwork for the executives, and most tellingly, she dons rubber gloves to clean up from what looks like a party of sorts from the night before. Everything about her dead-inside demeanor indicates this to be a routine, however creepy and disgusting her chores become.
At least that’s how I interpreted it, because this film spoon feeds you nothing. Leaning into her prior experience, Kitty Green has crafted a story around tiny details and micro-expressions. As the office fills with various staffers, their lingo feels impenetrably internal and their job descriptions vague at best. It doesn’t matter. They all serve the big boss who hovers over them as an angry voice on the phone or as a bellower from behind his office door. Everyone looks calm and professional on the surface, but their behavior reveals sheer terror. Watch Jane take a phone call from her boss and you’ll witness the tiniest of emotional shifts as she accepts a verbal beating. Her co-workers may have been in her position before, but their gallows humor and distance from Jane indicates a “better her than me” attitude.
Green’s script offers up one elliptical after the other. Not much really happens except for repetitive tasks, people scurrying around the office, and an assistant who quietly takes the blame for every misdeed, whether it be slight mistakes in travel plans or moving vulnerable people in and out of her boss’s path. It’s here where the slightest hint of a plot evolves as Julia escorts a young female intern straight from the Midwest around town. Cue the slightly disguised retelling of Harvey Weinstein’s grooming techniques in using his staff to lure pretty women into his lair.
Through it all, Jane maintains a hardened expression, the painful aspects of her job swirling just beneath the surface. You want her to explode, to fight back, to quit, but The Assistant seems far more interested in the realities of the situation. Jane needs this job. She needs to do whatever she’s told or she’s kicked to the curb. It’s a disorienting, harsh filmgoing experience, but at 87 minutes, it gets its points across succinctly and sends you on your way to wash the ickiness off and hopefully talk to someone else about what you’ve just seen.
Garner owns this film, not only because she’s in almost every frame of it, but because she gives a tour de force performance where the slightest tic feels like a silent scream. You may not understand the minutiae of the film business, but anyone can relate to a person just starting out and having to maintain their poise under dire circumstances. She’s riveting.
Matthew Macfadyen also excels in his single scene as an affectless HR manager who clearly has zero interest in helping Jane. Despite speaking to her in a soothingly calm manner, his words sent chills up my spine. Everyone at this company is expendable and clearly exist to serve the vile, gross, and illegal whims of their top dog.
Green and her cinematographer Michael Latham use the camera to dispassionately observe the series of events. Never showing off or utilizing unnecessary camera movements, the filmmakers merely record and report, and it’s just right. Make no mistake, The Assistant does not fall under the category of Popcorn Flick. It’s intense, demanding, confusing, rigorous, and captures the culture exactly as it should. It exposes dynamics which have gone unchecked for decades, hits a raw nerve, and then, like its title character, disappears into the night, leaving us to think about how we’re going to handle tomorrow.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
The Assistant is currently in select US theaters.