Film & Television

‘The Assistant,’ A Riveting #MeToo Horror Movie

In his Hollywood career, Harvey Weinstein produced hundreds of movies that earned dozens of Academy Awards and billions at the box office. He was one of the most (if not arguably the most) powerful industry moguls. But, since his ignominious fall from grace, he will be forever remembered as the reason for (and public enemy number one of) the #MeToo movement. Today, Weinstein is serving a 23-year sentence for two felony counts of criminal sexual assault and rape in New York while he awaits trial for similar offenses in California.

Although his name is never mentioned, Weinstein’s figure looms ominously over Kitty Green’s taut and powerful new drama The Assistant

The Assistant depicts one day in the life of the youngest female assistant on the desk of a powerful and predatory film executive,” Green recently told Women and Hollywood. “I was initially developing a project about consent and institutional power and had been interviewing college students across the United States. When the Harvey Weinstein story broke, I shifted focus and reached out to friends in the industry to hear their stories. I spoke to assistants and executives at length from studios, companies, and agencies including employees of Miramax and the Weinstein Company and developed the screenplay with this research in mind.”

The more salacious aspects of Weinstein’s story seem tailor-made for the big screen. However, Green takes a different approach. For every executive predator, her film argues, there is an organization that turns a blind eye and countless complicit assistants. Here, one assistant has a name: Jane. The monster does not. In fact, in the nearly 90-minute movie, we never see him.

As the simple title implies, The Assistant follows a day-in-the-life of a recent college grad and junior assistant to a high-powered producer. Although everyone is quick to tell her how fortunate she is to get her foot in the door, Jane’s life is unending drudgery. She’s the first one in; a car picks her up each morning in the pre-dawn hours. She’s the last to leave. She runs errands, makes photocopies, distributes scripts, confirms travel arrangements, fields calls from her boss’s irate wife, and picks up lunch for two other — more senior and male — assistants. She also picks up an earring left behind on her boss’s carpet and dons rubber gloves to scrub a stubborn stain off his couch.

The day is like every other day (in a quick exchange, we learn that Jane works weekends too, so for her it truly is every day), until an even younger woman arrives from Idaho with a suitcase. Apparently, Jane’s boss has hired her as an additional assistant and Jane escorts her to the posh New York hotel where the company is putting her up. When her boss misses a meeting and jokes are made about finding him at that same hotel, Jane decides to take action. She puts on her parka and walks next door to Human Resources.

At this point, we expect the story to start climbing toward some sort of climax. Jane will expose her evil boss and his reign of sexual terror will be at an end. Or, just as likely, Jane will be publicly vilified; she’ll lose her job and promising future but find her inner strength as she stays true to herself and her convictions. Or, in an unexpected and particularly despicable twist, Jane herself will become her boss’s next victim.

What happens is more disturbing. Because, what happens is . . . nothing.

In the movie’s most dramatic, but also most depressing, scene, the corporate tool in HR listens, but refuses to hear. Jane, who becomes more and more uncomfortable, is forced to connect all the dots for him and then must sit there as he plays back a markedly different scenario. Jane, it seems, is jealous of the new girl because she’s younger and prettier and staying in a nice hotel, so she’s fabricated her report out of envy. Is she sure she still wants to file it? “Don’t worry,” the smug corporate cog assures her as she leaves. “You’re not his type.”

The scene I’ve outlined above isn’t really a spoiler. Most of it appears in the film’s trailer, but more significantly, there’s nothing to spoil. A quick description of the movie would be, “Once upon a time there was a horrible beast who preyed upon young aspiring actresses. Everyone knew it. No one did anything about it. The end.”

The Assistant is bleak and tedious, and there’s no happy ending in sight. So, why then am I wholeheartedly recommending it? 

Because it is absolutely riveting.

Much credit goes to Julia Garner, the young star of 2015’s Grandma and last fall’s Modern Love, and an Emmy-winner for her role in Netflix’s Ozarks. As Jane, Garner delivers a performance that’s precise and measured. She barely reacts to the countless humiliations she suffers at the hands of not only her boss but her coworkers at every level. Yet, there’s an inner light that shines through. At one point, Jane calls her mother, only to be reminded that she’s forgotten her father’s birthday. It’s fine, her mom assures her. They know how hard she’s working and they’re so proud of her. Jane hangs up and you can feel the weight she carries. Her misery and her good fortune are one and the same; should she leave, thousands of other girls will line up to take her place. 

In some ways, Jane in The Assistant is reminiscent of Andy (Anne Hathaway) in The Devil Wears Prada, except there’s no high fashion, no hunky boyfriend, and no comedy whatsoever. In its place are gray industrial lighting and a continuous sense of dread.

Jane is no match for Matthew Macfadyen’s sinister Human Resources manager, Mr. Wilcock. At first soft-spoken and supportive, he quickly establishes the upper hand in their brief but memorable scene. He makes it abundantly clear that Jane has no agency and no credibility. MacFadyen’s voice stays smooth and modulated, barely acknowledging the very real threat he’s making. If her boss is evil, Wilcock is soulless. Jane leaves his office feeling more alone — and hopeless — than she did before. 

Jane isn’t just alone, she is nearly invisible. In fact, the only time anyone really notices her is when she’s being bullied by the other assistants or berated over the phone by her boss (we hear only random words but his rage is palpable). Each infraction requires a groveling email apology. “It’s not my place to question your decisions. I won’t let you down again,” she types, and receives a manipulative response. “You’re good,” her boss replies. “You’re very good. I’m tough on you because I’m going to make you great.” The language is eerily familiar, and almost certainly echoes the promises he makes to his sexual conquests.

The Assistant is Green’s first dramatic film. Her previous documentaries, which include Ukraine is Not a Brothel (2013) and Casting JonBenet (2017) have been lauded at film festivals and received top awards from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts and Sundance, among others. 

When asked what she wants people to think about after seeing The Assistant, Green is thoughtful. “Julia’s character is in such a complicated situation, and so are the women and men around her,” she explains. “I guess I’d be hoping that by seeing this machinery in action, an audience will come away thinking about their own role in this system or culture — we’re all part of it. And a cultural shift is aided by greater awareness.”

While movie theaters remain closed, you can find The Assistant available to rent on Amazon.


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