'The Assistant' wields loneliness to devastating effect

Julia Garner holding a telephone in 'The Assistant'
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Jane arrives at work before the city wakes. She’s a junior secretary for a prestigious New York City film production company, tasked with getting the place up and running before her league of coworkers, and especially her boss, shuffle in to start their hectic, interminable days.

The latter is like a storm cloud looming over The Assistant, Kitty Green’s terse, understated interpretation of the crimes and abuses that have led Harvey Weinstein to trial after decades of sexual misconduct. Green’s film plays it smart. Rather than carbon copy headlines into two hours of bloated, self-satisfied prestige, Green leaves our perpetrator out of the picture — literally. The audience only sees Jane’s boss once, and only from the back. We certainly hear him: on the phone, for instance, as he berates Jane (Julia Garner) for her failure to keep his incandescently furious wife off his back, or through the forbidding doors of his office as he alternately reads her male peers to filth and either charms, goads, or forces young starlet aspirants out of their clothes. Jane’s boss is a legend in his field, but he’s also almost certainly a predator. At best, he’s a two-timing pig; at worst, he’s a serial sexual harasser who uses his position to coax wannabe actresses into bed with him.

Even without the privilege of screen time, the man is everywhere. He’s there when Jane takes a cigarette break; he’s there while she timidly scarfs down a few spoonfuls of Fruit Loops before abandoning the rest to the break room sink, he’s there when she builds enough courage to blow the whistle on him in a meeting with HR that goes opposite to how she expects (but, sadly, precisely how viewers watching in the theater likely do expect). At the end of The Assistant, he’s in the cafe across the street from the office, where Jane, having spent the hell of her day repeatedly trying to eat a complete meal and coming up short, buys a dubious muffin and calls her dad to wish him a belated happy birthday. Even when she physically leaves for the day, she’s still emotionally stuck at work.

The Assistant understands well how men manipulate levers of power to exploit their subordinates while buying their secrecy — or if not “buy,” then certainly “compel.”

The Assistant captures the grueling routine of Jane’s job while stacking evidence of her boss’s flagrant violations before her. In that way, the film poses to Jane the impossible question of how to take down a monster. Jane’s boss isn’t named, and Green never shows his face, but the absence of any visual identification is irrelevant. His power is cemented through omnipresence: He’s so woven into Jane’s life that she can’t escape his influence. He’s a smothering toxic fog. Jane doesn’t have meaningful relationships with her film production colleagues, and she struggles to keep in touch with her folks. There’s nowhere for her to turn when her conscience catches up with her and leads her to the company’s HR director, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen). It’s the bitterest of ironies: He’s the person she should be able to turn to with her concerns over her boss’s transgressions. But their chat ends with her chastened, tearful, and utterly alone — with the added penalty of being on Wilcock’s radar for speaking up.

The Assistant understands well how men manipulate levers of power to exploit their subordinates while buying their secrecy — or if not “buy,” then certainly “compel.” Power makes for effective insulation. It keeps Jane’s boss at the reins of his company while warding off the consequences of his actions; no matter how much circumstantial proof she has of his predatory behavior, no matter how many errant earrings she recovers from the floor of his office, Jane is helpless to stop him. And her helplessness is a product of her isolation.

The Assistant unfolds over the course of one day, and throughout that day, Green makes the case that powerful people — the Cosbys and the Weinsteins of the world — preserve their power by isolating threats against it. On a surface level, Jane’s boss simply secures his employees’ loyalty with promises of success. “You’re good,” reads the email he sends Jane near the end of the movie. “I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great.” Her eyes briefly go liquid with pride and hope. He’s a bad man; she knows it. But she dreams of being a producer herself, and he knows it. He capitalizes on her ambitions and weaponizes them against her.

In fairness, maybe he genuinely believes that Jane is destined for greatness. But either way he isn’t stupid. Her role in the company puts her closer to him than any of the chumps on his payroll. If she chose, she could topple him from his perch on Olympus.

So he strikes her where she’s vulnerable. “I’m gonna make you great.” It’s the boss’s way of taming Jane as a threat. The temptation of success is too much to resist, and too fraught for her to share. She can’t tell anybody what he’s promised. What would she say? That the boss is grooming her for producorial work? That she’s his favorite? If people knew about this exchange, would they call her complicit in his misdeeds?

So, she keeps her mouth shut. She eats her muffin, and talks to her dad, the only person in The Assistant with no idea what Jane witnesses and has to deal with at her job.

It’s the loneliest beat in the entire movie: the realization that her boss has distanced her from everything that isn’t work, including her own unsuspecting father. Distance is the method by which the faceless boss ensures Jane’s silence. We’ve seen this strategy before. That’s what we’ve learned since #MeToo, in this moment where women more often speak up about the iniquities they endure in both their personal and professional lives: Isolation works. When victims, or witnesses to victimization, think they’re alone, they don’t speak up. When they don’t speak up, perpetrators win.

The Assistant mechanizes the monotony of Jane’s job in 80 minutes of escalating dread; the stultifying repetition of her duties numbs viewers just as it numbs Jane to the ugly truth of who her employer is. But the film’s most brilliant turn is the way it weaponizes Jane’s all-encompassing loneliness to devastating effect, revealing more about how men like Weinstein operate than a tacky awards bait picture could.