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VOD Review: The Assistant

May 6, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

One of the first clues we get that something is very off in The Assistant comes within the opening few minutes of the film when Jane (Julia Garner) puts on rubber gloves and gets down on her knees to scrub a stubborn stain off the couch in her boss’s office, a couch that clients will later jokingly be told not to sit on.

Jane is a junior assistant to a high level film producer, and The Assistant, writer/director Kitty Green’s dramatic thriller for the #MeToo era which was partially inspired by Harvey Weinstein and reports of what it was like to work for him, charts a day in her life, following her from morning to night in her thankless job working for an abusive man.

At the start of the film, we observe Jane heading to the office at the crack of dawn on a Monday morning to get things ready for the day, including printing out the box office numbers to be distributed around to the different desks. She does a quick tidying up of her boss’s office – a job that should be left to the janitorial department – including picking up a lost earring off the floor, which gets stashed in a drawer.

Jane’s boss exists as a faceless, nameless figure in the film who is referred to simply and ominously as “he” and “him,” but his presence dominates the picture, a threat lurking in the shadows. He is heard whispering harshly on the phone, admonishing Jane for “crossing him” in minor ways. We find out that Jane is a new hire, and has only been on the job for five weeks. She has aspirations of becoming a film producer, so is reluctant to speak up about the way she is being treated and the sexual misconduct that she knows is happening behind her back, lest she get blacklisted in this hostile industry.

One of the film’s tensest and most infuriating scenes comes when Jane decides to bring some of her concerns to the company’s human relations director (Matthew Macfadyan, leaving his mark on the film in a brilliant, quietly unnerving single-scene performance), giving her a harsh reality check about how deeply entrenched this culture of abuse is at the company. Garner carries the film with her remarkably restrained performance, keeping every one of Jane’s emotions from embarrassment to simmering rage bottled up inside, to be revealed only in closeups through a slight flutter of the eye or a downward curl of her lip. It’s a masterclass in subtlety.

This is the very definition of a slow burn. The film unfolds over a single day, and almost the entirety of it is confined to a drab office. Much of what happens in the film is only alluded to, and the majority of the impropriety happens offscreen. Jane knows damn well what is going on behind the door of her boss’s office, but she is kept in the dark enough so that others can gaslight her into doubting her intuitions, in an insidious example of the ways in which she is being systematically silenced.

Despite the film’s limited settings, cinematographer Michael Latham finds some interesting ways to frame the scenes, including moments of centre framing with the camera placed in the air above Jane’s desk, in a way that makes even the most mundane of tasks, like cutting open boxes, seem ominous. The film has the steely grey look of a thriller, with a foreboding tone that increasingly builds throughout the taught 85 minute running time.

I found The Assistant both gripping and disturbing to watch. It’s a superbly crafted and extremely well acted film that really got under my skin, showing the subtle and overt ways that a woman is subjugated and abused in her place of work, essentially powerless against a powerful man who doesn’t even need to be named in order to take control of her life. It’s a chilling, eerily believable film, made all the more so by the fact that we know damn well this sort of stuff continues to happen every day.

The Assistant is now available to purchase and rent on a variety of VOD platforms, including iTunes.

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