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'The Assistant' Offers a Dark Glimpse Into a Toxic Work Culture


Published March 4, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 10, 2020 at 2:29 p.m.

HIS GIRL FRIDAY Garner plays a young woman torn between her career and her conscience in Green’s sober #MeToo drama.
  • HIS GIRL FRIDAY Garner plays a young woman torn between her career and her conscience in Green’s sober #MeToo drama.

Movies about bad people doing bad things are a dime a dozen, but movies about their loyal henchpeople and accomplices are less common, perhaps because they're less fun. The Assistant, a fly-on-the-wall drama about the assistant to a Harvey Weinstein-type movie mogul, is not fun at all.

Documentarian Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet) approaches this potentially explosive material with a flat, unfazed gaze. There are no casting couch or harassment scenes in the film; the character known to us only as the Boss is barely seen and rarely heard. While he seems to be the focus of his entire office's nervous attention, the focus of The Assistant itself is Jane (Julia Garner), the title character, a recent college grad who dreams of being a movie producer.

That description makes Jane sound fluttery and naïve; she is not. The movie tells the story of one workday in her life, and only when the events of that day bring her to a crisis do we learn that she's a fairly recent hire.

It's a surprise, because Garner plays Jane with the steeliness of a young person who has learned very fast how to be "professional," whether she's talking down the Boss' angry wife, retrieving a woman's earring from the couch in his office or dealing with verbal abuse from the man himself. She eats Froot Loops in the staff kitchenette and wipes what looks like cocaine off his desk with the same icy composure.

But, as the film continues, the stress behind that composure becomes palpable. When a starry-eyed young woman arrives from Idaho claiming she's been offered an assistant position of her own, under highly irregular circumstances, the situation tests Jane's capacity to look the other way.

Is it boring to watch Garner make photocopies and unpack bottled water? Yes, and Green shows us a lot of that. But the numbing routine drives home the tension that dominates the entire office. More than other #MeToo films, The Assistant demonstrates that toxic behavior arises not from a vacuum but from a workplace run on a grinding treadmill of ambition, fear and silence. Jane has just two sustained face-to-face conversations in the movie: one with the Idaho girl, whose sweet sociability is a mark of how little she belongs in this world; and one with a higher-up (Matthew Macfadyen) who seems sympathetic until he doesn't.

Green has said she researched the movie by speaking to current and former employees of numerous Hollywood companies, not just Weinstein's. The Assistant captures the humiliating compromises people are willing to make for a dream career — and the workplace norms and casual sexism that make those compromises inevitable.

While nothing untoward happens on-screen, at times The Assistant is nearly as disturbing to watch as Compliance, the 2012 fact-based drama in which a fast-food manager inflicts abuse on her subordinates in her eagerness to obey the orders of a self-proclaimed cop. Like the instigator in that movie (who's actually a phone prankster), the Boss in this one exists mainly as a voice on the phone.

He's usually yelling. But the movie's most chilling moment comes when he responds to Jane's abject apology (one of two she makes that day) with words of praise and a promise to "make you great." This, we see, is how villains craft their loyal accomplices — with the assurance that every cruelty or callousness comes from a place of love. No, movies like this aren't fun, but they might just be worth our careful attention.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Assistant"