Harvey Weinstein is never mentioned in The Assistant, but the former movie mogul and convicted rapist looms large over this savagely relevant drama, which offers a vivid picture of what life might have been like for every one of the employees – male as well as female, victim or no – trapped in Weinstein’s evil little world.
Kitty Green’s film could be viewed as the indie counterpart to the recent Bombshell, which was first out of the blocks in the aftermath of #MeToo. Where Bombshell was a glossily-packaged, all-star satire, The Assistant is low-budget, low-key, with no humour to lighten the disturbing themes, led by a relatively unknown actress.
And while Bombshell was overtly about the late Roger Ailes’s sexual harassment of female staff at Fox News, the new film is fictional, unspecified (as in any good horror film, the predator is heard but never seen); whatever connections we choose to make, this could be any office, anywhere.
There’s one more instructive difference: Bombshell was told from the perspective of the victims; here, it’s from those on the periphery of the abuse, the executives and others down the office food chain turning a blind eye, or worse enabling their unnamed, tyrannical boss’s sexual misdeeds.
The focus is the boss’s newest personal assistant. With ambitions to be a film producer, Jane (Julia Garner) is given a seemingly fantastic first step on the ladder, working in the offices of a successful New York entertainment company. After just two months, she’s already a tightly-coiled mess.
At first glance, hers are the travails (no less excusable) of any newbie in a pressurised and chauvinist office environment. First in, last out, her mundane chores include photocopying, ordering lunch, dealing with dry cleaning and post, arranging drivers and booking hotels, even cleaning. But mixed with the routine are more nefarious errands: delivering unsuspecting women (a newer, younger assistant, an aspiring actress) into the ogre’s clutches; unpacking a delivery of Alprostadil (used by men to boost their erections); fielding the hysterical phone calls from the man’s wife.
Jane is confident, efficient. But during the course of a single day, we see her conscience working overtime to balance her dismay at the sordid goings-on with the predicament of having a job she doesn’t want to lose. And like the two, shifty male colleagues she shares an office with – who treat her as though she’s from another planet – she remains in thrall to the executive on the other side of the door, devastated by his tantrums, buoyed by the slightest praise.
Green’s script cleverly conveys the monster’s moods and manipulations through emails and phones calls (a very Weinstein-like gruffness heard on the other end of the line). One of the film’s lowest ebbs is when those male colleagues dictate Jane’s apology for angering the chief; another when she dares to take her concerns to an HR executive, played by Matthew Macfadyen (pictured above) with the same mixture of feigned innocence and venom as his thrusting media exec in HBO’s Succession. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” he blithely remarks, having reminded Jane of her precarious position. “You’re not his type.”
Making her feature debut after strong work in documentary, Green shoots in a stylish but deliberately mirthless palette of browns and greys, with little sound other than dialogue and the constant click of computer keyboards. Behind the office’s still, focussed façade lies an unmistakable toxic tension.
The cool aesthetic and direction bring to mind another tale of misogynist office life, Neil LaBute’s 1997 In the Company of Men. While that film was focussed on the male miscreants, this has Garner, a rising star best known for the TV show Ozark, front and centre of every frame. And she’s utterly commanding, in a twitchy, hyper-alert, sink-or-swim way, a would-be heroine in a pool full of sharks.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk