A shape glides across the screen. It moves fast, like it’s just homing in on its next meal. There’s time only to register a rough shape – a mass of shoulder, encased in sharp tailoring. Its face sits just outside of frame. You can almost hear the rumble of the Jaws theme start to grow. In Kitty Green’s The Assistant, we never discover the name this threatening figure goes by. There are only context clues: a stark Manhattan office littered with elegant, minimalist movie posters; hushed phone calls about test screenings and trips to LA; and a young woman, with fear in her eyes, who arrives to pick up an earring left on the floor of the boss’ office.
We know the predator in question is meant to be Harvey Weinstein. The fact Green allows him only to be referred to as “Him”, often in a timid whisper, speaks to the devastating power of her film. “Him” might be Weinstein, but he could also be any of the other men – the ones not currently sitting jail – who abuse their position in order to harm and exploit others. Her film doesn’t deal in the specifics of Weinstein’s crimes, but in the culture of complicity and silence that allowed them to go unpunished for decades.
With three documentaries already to her name, including 2017’s Casting JonBenét, Green now takes on her first narrative feature. But the approach doesn’t differ all that much: the Australian filmmaker interviewed around a hundred former and current assistants, working in different industries, and then compiled the results into a single character, seen over the course of a single day.
Download the new Independent Premium app
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
Her first name is Jane (Julia Garner). Though her surname isn’t given, it might as well be Doe. Her work hours are filled with small, monotonous tasks: making coffee, filling the fridges with Fiji water, printing out the day’s schedules, clearing up pastry crumbs, opening mail. She arrives before dawn and leaves well after dusk. Green catalogues these actions in tight, claustrophobic shots – but there are details that seem out of place. Jane scrubs a stain out of the boss’ couch. She logs checks with no names on them. But then a young woman (Kristine Froseth), with pillow lips and Bambi eyes, arrives to the office. She reveals that she’s the new assistant. Jane is told to drop her off a hotel. Then her boss disappears from the office. What existed only as hints before now unveils itself as the complete portrait of monster.
The Assistant isn’t about empowerment (that’s a task for other filmmakers), but presents a cruel, unvarnished reality. The dialogue is sparse; the lighting deals in harsh fluorescents. All that’s here is the slow, terrifying sensation of being trapped in a spider’s web. Jane’s colleagues play-act camaraderie, but they inevitably shift the day’s more “womanly” tasks onto her (washing dishes, fixing vacuums, and even helping with childcare) and only wander over to make patronising suggestions on how to phrase her apology emails. Worse still, they’re clued in on the office’s open secret, but choose to joke about it – “I wouldn’t sit there”, they cackle, pointing to the recently cleaned sofa. When Jane tries to speak up, she’s greeted with Matthew Macfayden’s smiling, empty-souled HR rep. It’s another masterclass in unctuousness from the Succession star.
Green has captured the specific, nauseating feeling of both complicity and powerlessness – telegraphed so beautifully on Garner’s features. You can see mountains caving in within those bright, blue eyes. They water up, but the tears never find release. In truth, we never find out much about Jane. This is a place for drones, not humans. But The Assistant, masterfully nuanced at every level, lets us put the pieces together: a “Big Hug” mug, Froot Loops for breakfast, and fragile dreams of becoming a producer. Things don’t end with revelation or action, but with a phone call to Jane’s parents. What’s said and not said is the stuff of heartbreak. Weinstein may have been toppled, but there are many more Janes out there – left untethered and lost in fear.