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Review: ‘The Assistant’ masterfully shows abuse, complicity in Weinstein-inspired power structure

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 20, 2020

Julia Garner plays the assistant to a Harvey Weinstein-like studio boss in “The Assistant.” (Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street)
Julia Garner plays the assistant to a Harvey Weinstein-like studio boss in “The Assistant.” (Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

It’s the specificity that devastates in Kitty Green’s starkly damning quotidian drama “The Assistant.” It’s in the quiet efficiency with which our unnamed protagonist (credited as “Jane,” played by Julia Garner) speaks and moves as she performs her menial yet seemingly crucial duties in a job we will come to discover is harrowing and highly prized.

Jane’s routine starts with a chauffeured black car to a Tribeca office in the pre-dawn hours. Under the industrial pallor of fluorescent lights, she performs her daily tasks, and a sense of dread starts to creep in. She restocks water bottles; she finds a gold earring on the carpet. She delivers lunch orders; she silently absorbs the shouts of an angry woman on the phone.

Jane is the third assistant, essentially the physical support system, of a high-powered Hollywood executive, an unseen and unnamed man who is a notorious abuser of his staff and a parade of striving young actresses. “The Assistant” is the first post-Weinstein film explicitly about Harvey Weinstein, and it is a potent fable that unearths and indicts the systems that kept Weinstein, and men like him, in power for so long.

For those who spent time in the Hollywood assistant trenches, “The Assistant” might hit like an arrow to the heart. There’s a deep sense of familiarity to be found in the rhythms and language of this world, as well as an understanding that Jane has had the word “no” groomed out of her vocabulary.

Her boss calls to verbally abuse her, and she immediately drafts an apology email, thanking him for the career opportunity guided by her male peers, the first (Jon Orsini) and second (Noah Robbins) assistants. Those who never lived this culture might be frustrated by the ambivalence that cloaks Jane’s action or inaction. But the ambivalence is the point.

Every action and inaction, every hand-delivered meal, car booked, script printed, meeting finished, joke cracked at the young women in and out of his office, props up the system. Every participant in the web of the office could be seen as a collaborator, just another cog in the banal and evil machine crafted by one man’s intimidation and bullying.

Jane has a moment of rebellion quickly tamped down by a human resources exec played by Matthew Macfadyen in a short but powerful performance of weaponized simpering. The truly dark thing? His argument makes sense. And so the day progresses, the assistant continues her tasks, trying to assert herself in the smallest of ways within this system in which she has no control, discarding trash the way her boss discards people.

Garner is simply astonishing in a role that asks her to communicate her character’s emotional journey while the character herself masks her emotions in this volatile environment. She is at once tormented, guilty and intensely vulnerable, and the film anchors itself around this complex and confused character.

It’s a bold choice for Green, making her narrative directorial debut writing and directing “The Assistant” after directing several lauded documentaries, including “Casting JonBenet” and “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel.” The utterly spare style with which she approaches the story speaks to her skill marrying form and content, and her script does its talking in the moments of silence, the glances and knowing looks.

At once austere and daring, “The Assistant” might be the first cinematic shot across the bow at Weinstein, taking the structures that supported his crimes down with him.

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