Producers: Kitty Green, Scott Macaulay, James Schamus and P. Jennifer O’Grady Director: Kitty Green Screenplay: Kitty Green Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Julia Canfield, Alexander Chapin, Jay O. Sanders, Dagmara Domińczyk, Bregje Heinen and Clara Wong Distributor: Bleecker Street
The recent “Bombshell” dealt with the sorry business of Roger Ailes’s long history of sexual abuse of Fox News female staff in a bluntly over-the-top, almost garish fashion. By contrast Kitty Green takes a muted, understated approach to the sordid Harvey Weinstein affair, not even using the man’s name, perhaps because the legal process is still underway, and never actually showing the predatory producer who serves as his stand-in.
The central character here, in fact, is the titular one, Jane (Julia Garner), a young college grad who’s taken a job at a New York production company, hoping eventually to become a producer herself. The opening depicts the young woman, mousy and plainly dressed, coming in for work in the morning. A company car picks her up and deposits her at the firm’s small office, where she undertakes menial tasks like starting the coffee brewing and opening the master’s mail—including an invitation to a prestigious event.
Jane’s treated mostly with indifference by her more senior male assistants (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins), though they do offer her advice on how to compose a groveling note of apology to their boss when he upbraids her for messing up—a reaction that seems pretty common on his part. But it’s clear that’s she’s begun to suspect that his conduct with women behind his office’s closed door—including a beautiful actress (Bregje Heinen)—is problematic at best, and when another assistant named Sienna (Kristine Froseth) shows up, a pretty but naïve young thing, Jane is certain that she’s not been hired for her sterling secretarial abilities.
It’s clear that the other members of the office staff—the women as well as the men—are aware of what’s going on, but are careful about not rocking the boat. (The boss’ wife is equally adept at turning a blind eye.) Jane herself has apparently chosen to tone down her looks, wearing dowdy outfits for example, to avoid catching the boss’ eye.
But now she’s sufficiently concerned to take her observations to the Human Resources head, the aptly-named Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), who begins by expressing sympathy for her but slowly manipulating the conversation to persuade her that it would be better for her own future not to take her concerns too far. His parting observation to her—that she really needn’t worry because she’s not his type—is the ultimate signal that she should join her colleagues in doing her job and not asking too many questions. And though she can’t help but worry over what she knows, it appears that she might become part of the problem, too.
So while at its foundation “The Assistant” is about the pervasive sexual harassment that generated the #metoo movement, its real subject is the willingness of so many to have simply tolerated what they knew was going on for so long, all out of self-interest. Everyone around Jane in the office is complicit in keeping quiet while their boss continues his abusive behavior, and she might join them. “Bombshell” was about that too, of course, but while it was set in the glossy, high-toned world of Fox News, Green’s film emphasizes the tackiness of the surroundings in which people surrender their scruples for so little reward.
Green, who edited the film as well as directing it, and helped by Michael Latham’s precise but understated camerawork, presents Jane’s story with a somber deliberation and attention to detail that enhances its underlying grimness. She’s aided immeasurably by Garner’s quietly nuanced performance, which shines particularly in the sequence with Macfadyen, who perfectly captures the unctuousness of the professional enabler. The whole of the supporting cast, including some heard only in voiceover in phone calls, is admirable,
“The Assistant” assuredly won’t be the last word on the Weinstein scandal, but in its quiet, unassuming way it cunningly depicts the culture that allowed the crass, cruel behavior of not just one man but many of them.