The Assistant Movie Review: A discomforting commentary on workplace harassment
The Julia Garner-starrer is crafted to induce a sense of uneasiness and rightfully leaves you with a bitter taste
The Assistant opens with a static outdoor shot. Well before dawn, we see Jane (Ozark’s Julia Garner) walk out of her humble apartment and board the cab to her office. The camera then starts following the car as it drives through New York City, capturing the skyline and the high-rise buildings. A heavy-eyed Jane nonchalantly looks at the buildings she is passing by and the camera allows us to see these heavy establishments from her slant; they look immense from the down, but there’s more to these creations than architectural accomplishment. She arrives at her destination, a film production company, and the camera remains still for a few moments after she enters the building. It feels like a suggestion from the editor to take a deep breath before the film hurls us into the closeted interiors of the workplace where the film is set.
Starring: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh
Directed by: Kitty Green
Streaming on: BookMyShow Stream
The cold confines of the workplace were the first to grab my attention in this Kitty Green directorial. The office atmosphere is cold, literally and figuratively. There’s barely any interaction between the people and the conversations, when they happen, lack warmth; the characters are deliberately written to reek of detachment. The grim interiors, replete with sounds of office machinery and the murmur, can be suffocating. Eavesdropping is one of the film’s traits. Dialogues from the background, regardless of the little relevance they may bear to the whole picture, can be heard throughout. It is a creative choice that aids in building this world suffused with suits and excel sheets.
Green, who also wrote the script, entirely rests on the triviality of the workplace to pull us into this apathetic, impassive setting. Jane’s everyday routine — even basic actions like having breakfast or washing hands after using the toilet — is magnified as we follow her day at the office. Green’s ability to instigate a sense of aversion towards this environment and the people surrounding Jane, without dramatising her predicament and emotional suffering left me in awe. The farthest it goes in terms of drama is in a brilliant sequence where Jane decides to report her boss’ sexual advances with a newly-recruited assistant to the human resources department. When we see the head of HR carefully and callously turn a blind eye to a teary-eyed Jane, it is infuriating for all the right reasons. This scene, with Garner's terrific portrayal, encapsulates the film’s critique of workplace harassment, underscoring how the workplace culture and hierarchy have enabled men in power to walk away even after inflicting grave sexual misconduct.
Another discomforting touch to this scene is a call-back to the buildings Jane sees on her way to work. She has to walk to another office building to meet the head of HR and when asked about her at the reception, Jane casually says that she came from the other building. These buildings are not only immense but intimidating as well, with each potentially housing suppressed voices in them. It is understated, but staggering nevertheless.
The defining quality of The Assistant, in addition to other accomplishments, has to be its choice to make “The Boss,” a faceless, nameless figure. Had the film personified him, it would have reduced him to another ‘disgusting human’ which he still is, but by keeping him anonymous (he is always referred to as “he”), the gun is now aimed at everyone who misuses power. The production company setting, naturally, hints at the infamous Harvey Weinstein, but “he” can be anyone; the boss is a symbol of power-based abuse.
The scenes are purposefully crafted to feel long. The camera gawks at Jane in length, at times in close-ups, without respite even during her most embarrassing moments. It puts us in her shoes and wants us to experience this excruciating uneasiness as she wades through the workplace. At 80 minutes, The Assistant feels a tad long, and I mean it as a compliment to the film’s efforts to accentuate the protagonist’s headspace. Seldom do we come across films that intentionally downplay the theatricality. The Assistant is a film that not only chooses to minimise the drama but, in fact, thrives in simplicity.