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Non-Review Review: The Assistant

The Assistant is a quiet and simmering examination of complicity.

The story unfolds over the course of a single day in the life (mostly the office) of Jane. Jane is the eponymous assistant, working at an independent film company in New York as the right-hand woman to a(n in)famous producer with an explosive temper and monstrous appetites. Kitty Green’s film follows Jane from her early morning Uber ride into work to the single muffin that she allows herself at the deli on the way home, keeping an intense and claustrophobic close-up on lead actor Julia Garner.

Garnering praise.

The Assistant arrives with enough weight that the audience knows what it is about even before the film clearly articulates it. The Assistant is transparently a #metoo movie and the unnamed and largely unseen (but very clearly heard and very strongly felt) producer is very plainly a stand-in for convicted sexual offender Harvey Weinstein. This allows The Assistant a great deal of freedom. Because the audience comes to the film with that assumed knowledge, Green’s script and direction are able to peddle in ambiguity and tease the veil of plausible deniability.

The beauty of The Assistant lies in the way that both the audience and Jane (and seemingly everybody else) knows what is happening, but keep their head down and their focus elsewhere. It’s a story about looking away so that one might see no evil and the noise that people make so that they might hear no evil. It’s an anxious, ominous, suffocating study of the constant smoothing done at the margins of these sorts of horror stories.

Dial it back.

The unnamed executive at the heart of The Assistant serves as an absent centre. The character looms over the drama. The characters place an extra, almost religious stress, on the pronoun “he” whenever they mention him. “Is He in yet?” one asks. “He wants you on the Los Angeles trip,” a staff member is told. “He just stepped out,” a caller is assured. There is never any question of who “he” is, even in an office dominated by men.

The character is only briefly glimpsed throughout The Assistant. He walks through the open plan company space to his own office. His silhouette is seen through the blinds from across the street. More often, he is heard. He can be heard through walls and over the phone. The Assistant doesn’t use clean voice-over, but it doesn’t need to. As the camera presses in on Jane’s faces and the muffled audio allows the audience to make out fragments like “who the f&!k do you think you are?”, it’s very clear how forcefully “the chairman” controls his dominion.

A career sender.

Green frequently offers the audience a snapshot of the character’s environment, if not himself. The camera is allowed inside his office only when he is absent. Green carefully and meticulous frames shots so as to reinforce the power that this executive holds over his company. While he is in a screening room, his office door is open, his desk clear and his chair empty. However, it centres the symmetrical frame. Jane’s desk outside his office is pushed to the right. She is minimised even by his absence, as much as he is ever truly absent.

Of course, Jane is meant to be invisible. She is, as the in-house legal counsel observes, “first one in, last one out.” The first few minutes of The Assistant unfold in relative silence. Jane sleeps in the back of her ride to work. She quietly does preparation for the day. She stocks up the water bottles in the personal fridge. She prints the paperwork. She barely has a chance to take a mouthful of cereal before her male co-workers arrive. “How was your weekend?” she asks a colleague. “Amazing,” he responds. “Yours?” She replies, “I was here.” Of course she was.

Putting in the (paper) work.

Green uses sound design remarkably well. The Assistant contrasts the silence of the opening few minutes with the cacophony that follows. Characters are often heard long before they are seen. Dialogue is intentionally garbled or obscured – all that matters is that people are talking. It initially seems like this noise exists to drown out Jane. However, it quickly becomes clear that the noise serves another purpose. The roar of the juicer, the churn of the copy machine, the clacking of the keyboard all serve to drown out the anxiety or the dread, shouting over any hint of conscience.

Green captures the mundaniety of office work. The film is populated by shots that suggest supervision and paranoia, whether peering over a cubicle wall or staring down on the office like some force in divine judgment. The Assistant pays particular attention to the mechanics of the office. There are lots of overhead shots of the documentation that Jane prepares, lots of intense close ups of pixelated text on screen. This serves to contrast it with the muffled sound. This is the paper trail. This is documented. This is real, in a way that muffled sounds or implications are not.

Open door policy.

In this way, The Assistant is able to demonstrate how Jane compartmentalises her role in what is happening. She might feel like something untoward is happening with the young women who come and go from the office over the course of the film, she might get anxious about the young woman that she escorts to a hotel business meeting, but those are just thoughts and idle speculation. It is not real. It isn’t paper. It isn’t proof. It is just a feeling.

What really elevates The Assistant is the way in which it manages to capture these two extremes, the way in which Jane can clearly know what is going on while insisting that she has no proof. At one point, she receives some curious documentation, so she calls accounting. “The last two cheques don’t have a name or anything,” she remarks. “Just the dollar amount. Will he know what it’s for?” She is told not to worry, and so she doesn’t worry.

Does not compute.

Jane knows what she wants, and she’s convinced that this is just a necessary compromise to get it. She wants to be a producer. “We could use more women producers,” offers the in-house legal counsel at one point. “It’s a tough job, and I can see you’ve got what it takes.” He positions it right before pivoting into a stern warning that Jane should not rock the boat. After the chairman tears into Jane over the phone, she finds herself soothed by a gentle email. “I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great,” the email promises. She is excited by second-hand praise.

So Jane draws arbitrary lines. She won’t rock the boat, but she won’t make herself party to these abuses. “I’m not going to lie to her,” she insists to her coworkers when put on the phone to the chairman’s wife. Jane avoids lying outright, but a lie of omission is still a lie. Jane is still complicit. She entertains the children of another personal assistant while their mother is in his office. She listens to her male coworkers joke about how one should “never sit on the couch.” She says nothing as a female coworker insists that a young actor “will get more out of it than him.”

Counseling wisely.

After all, how could Jane be anything but complicit? She might technically be an “assistant”, but the film makes it clear that she is also a source of emotional labour. Her male colleagues outsource the obligation of dealing with “the wife” to her in the first place. Despite the existence of a “janitorial staff”, Jane is responsible for cleaning and maintaining the chairman’s office. She even offers technical advice to household staff struggling to work vacuum cleaners. There is no professional boundary between Jane and her employer. The notion that one exists is a comforting fallacy.

The Assistant understand this. It gets the true horrors of complicity, and the ways in which people compartmentalise and rationalise in order to justify their participation in such systems. It does so in a way that avoids either completely exculpating or condemning Jane. It’s a very complicated moral situation, one that deserves more nuance and consideration than a simple “guilty” or “innocent” verdict. It’s ambiguous and uncomfortable, as it should be.

Into the lair of the lawyer…

Green is fortunate to be working with an actor like Garner. The nature of the film means that every scene rests on Garner. It’s notable that the only other major character is the in-house legal counsel played by Matthew Macfadyen, who appears in a single extended scene. So much of The Assistant involves the camera pressing in on Green as Jane listens and watches and observes. It’s a role that demands considerable depth from a performer, and Garner is very much up to the task. Jane doesn’t get a lot of exposition, but she feels like a real character.

The Assistant is a tough watch, as it should be. It’s also a powerhouse piece of cinema.

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