Despite (or because of) the fact that serial sex offender and former producer Harvey Weinstein is now finally behind bars, the fallout from his public exposure will still be a moment in film history that will have lasting repercussions. Repercussions that are reflected in how movies seem to finally be able to dive into depicting sexual abuse within systems. There was Bombshell, about the Fox News Roger Ailes scandal last year, but The Assistant is much less mainstream and focuses its attention more on the movie industry in general. It is easily one of the best films of the year.
Jane (Julia Garner) works as an Assistant for a New York film production company. Over the course of a single day, she ends up seeing signs that something is not right with the company and it’s unseen boss, through various things that she is asked to do and through her interactions with her co-workers, the boss himself and other people.
Narratively, The Assistant is made up of brief self-contained segments, some of which connect to each other and some of which do not. Despite not having much of a clear narrative arc, it is never boring or aimless. The stark realism and the incredible ambiguity (What is the boss doing exactly? When are these events taking place? Who is the boss? What happens after this day? What happened before? What is Jane’s backstory?: all questions you may ask but are never answered) are compelling because they force you to think about the history of sexual harassment cases and how it could happen literally anywhere to anyone. They also force you to think about this story and interpret what you want to interpret from it. Despite this, the story still ties itself together with a vague but powerful conclusion.
Morally, this film succeeds where it could have easily failed. Jane, a stand-in for any woman who has worked in her position (as indicated by her generic name), could have been either a victim or a hero, but she is neither. Despite the mistreatment she receives, she is being spared from something worse, though not out of decency. And whilst she eventually is made aware in some way of what her boss is doing, there is no cathartic moment where she changes things. Though the film also does not take a victim-blaming stance, showcasing that Jane and the other women are all deserving of sympathy, regardless of what they do or how they do it.
As Jane, Julia Garner shows star potential, delivering a subdued yet powerful performance that carries virtually every scene. Whilst the actors playing the other two male assistants do slightly overplay their roles, the other recognisable face, Matthew Mcfadyen as another higher-up, takes his one scene and makes the absolute most of it. The scene that he and Garner share is the most uncomfortable and anger-inducing moment I have seen in a film so far this year, with its power being largely down to the excellent dialogue but also their performances.
Kitty Green, making her fiction film debut here, does a fantastic job behind the camera. There is little camera movement, but when it occurs it really enhances the mood. The sound mixing that often blends multiple conversations that are happening at the same time is also brilliant, with the soundtrack itself being completely absent so that you can focus on the sounds of the environment. It is a bleak movie, but one that is watchable and well-edited enough to not feel like a slog and a bummer.
The Assistant has set an incredible bar for movies about this subject matter and should probably be the standard going forward, as well as showcasing a level of creativity that I hope future #MeToo movies embrace going forward. Get the Curzon Home Cinema and watch it immediately.