Editor’s note: This review was originally published during the film’s festival premiere and theatrical release, it hits VOD on Tuesday, April 28.
Harvey Weinstein doesn’t appear in “The Assistant,” and nobody mentions him by name, but make no mistake: Director Kitty Green’s urgent real-time thriller marks the first narrative depiction of life under his menacing grip. “Ozark” breakout Julia Garner is a revelation as the fragile young woman tasked with juggling the minutiae of the executive’s life, arranging a never-ending stream of airplane trips, staving off angry callers, and picking up the trash left in his wake.
Beyond a few unfocused glimpses of a hulking figure roaming his office in the background, the Weinstein of “The Assistant” is a phantom menace who barrels down on the young woman’s life, but this fascinating psychological investigation doesn’t allow him to hijack a story that belongs to her. “The Assistant” doesn’t document the specifics of Weinstein’s abuses recounted by so many over the past two years; instead, it explores the harassment and control that kept his unwitting enablers under his grip.
Green’s first fiction feature following the innovative true-crime documentary “Casting JonBenet” feels like a natural extension of her earlier work. Built out of immaculate research into the working conditions under Weinstein and how they affected many of the young women on its payroll, the movie unfolds as a gradual accumulation of intricate details, mapping out the character’s exhausting routine until it becomes her own private Twilight Zone. “The Assistant” adopts such a gradual pace that it sometimes works against the stunning performance at its center, but there’s no doubting the hypnotic power of a movie that digs inside Weinstein’s harrowing reign and observes the mechanics that allowed it to last so long. A quiet work with major ambitions, “The Assistant” is a significant cultural statement in cinematic form.
As Jane, Garner delivers a masterclass of small, uncertain gestures. A Northwestern grad who harbors dreams of producing movies, she’s already enmeshed in an endless work cycle as the movie begins: Hopping out of her Astoria home before the sun rises, polishing up the vacant office, speeding through emails, printing out price sheets, and so on; the rest of the company slowly comes to life around her. Green constructs the atmosphere with a masterful focus on fragments of business talk, the clacking of keyboards, and ringing phones that draw out the drab nature of Jane’s work: She’s at once at the center of the action and entirely removed from it.
And that includes the activities of her invisible boss, who only seems to notice her when she screws up. It doesn’t take long: After angering some moody client, Jane gets a call from her unseen overlord as fragments of his bitter tirade (“They told me you were smart”) are barely audible. The specifics matter less than the way the abuse plays out on Garner’s face as she sinks into her hands, and the formal procedure that follows is just a few steps shy of a dark joke: The pair of unnamed male assistants (Noah Robbins and Jon Orsini) who sit across from Jane and judge her every move assemble behind her to dictate an apology email, and Jane does as she’s told. As much as “The Assistant” involves the process through which one man exerts control over a woman trapped by his direction, it also shows how the toxic workplace infects others in its grasp.
As the physical toil of Jane’s work piles up — cleaning dishes, taking out the garbage, dealing with paper cuts — she begins to notice the evidence of Weinstein’s worst crimes. The offhand discovery of an earring piques Jane’s interest, as does a passing comment from one of the men at the company that nobody should ever sit on the office couch. Green makes the brilliant gamble of letting audiences pick up the pieces. With time, it becomes clear that Jane sees no recourse but to contend with circumstances that have since become a matter of grotesque public record.
For a while, “The Assistant” seems as though it could simply hover in Jane’s world for hours, as if presenting the #MeToo equivalent of Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman.” But then the movie injects a subtle plot twist, as Jane’s suddenly tasked with taking a young new assistant (Kristine Froseth) to her own hotel room. The wide-eyed Ohio transplant’s sudden A-list treatment confounds Jane, who seems as if she’s in denial about her boss’ real agenda with the young woman, and instigates a visit to the company HR office that pitches the movie into a whole new level of discomfort. Played by “Succession” star Matthew Macfadyen, the executive tasked with belittling Jane for her complaint magnifies the way the company exerted control over their liabilities and how they got away with it. The backlash Jane experiences from her small attempt to take charge is devastating, and it ends with a sudden email from her boss that gives her just enough encouragement to keep her in line.
“The Assistant” pads out so much of its 85-minute runtime with eerie textures that it tends to linger on the same note of despair, and it struggles to move the story into a new place by its closing act. The tension dissipates as “The Assistant” drifts toward its finale, and there’s a lingering sense that it underserves Jane’s story by basking so much of the company’s happenings in total mystery. It’s hard not to imagine what Green, whose previous work has used reenactments and voiceover to immerse viewers in real events, might have accomplished if she’d paired these scenes with real accounts from Weinstein’s victims.
On the other hand, “The Assistant” doesn’t need to overstate the nature of Jane’s conundrum. Best appreciated as an experimental narrative about workplace oppression, it’s a fascinating illustration of how the worst abuses can remain hidden even from those closest to the lion’s den. Green has not set out to make the definitive retelling of the Weinstein scandal, the reporting on his years of sexual abuse and coverups, or the fallout that destroyed his company. (Brad Pitt’s Plan B already has that project in development.) Instead, the movie hovers in silent moments when taking action simply doesn’t seem feasible. The absence of payoff only adds to the haunting spell, and imbues the drama with purpose. Amid galvanizing stories about what it took to speak out, “The Assistant” is an essential reminder of why it took so long for the world to hear about it.
“The Assistant” premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.