What can we do?
There will be people that walk out of Kitty Green‘s The Assistant with a confused shrug and that’s precisely the point. They will wonder why they just sat through an 80-minute distillation of a woman’s workday because they won’t have felt the drama or been able to read between the lines of what’s going on. Much like Matthew Macfadyen‘s human resources manager Wilcock, they’ll obtusely hide behind the veil of unsubstantiated assumption despite knowing that assumption is correct. Why? Because they’ve deluded themselves into thinking what’s happening is okay. They’re willfully ignorant to how the power dynamic at play warps everyone’s job description on-screen into complicity. They’re victim-shamers and victim-blamers who actively justify a nightmare with its future potential for reward. They’ve already sold their souls.
So treat this film as a litmus test. Do you believe Jane (Julia Garner) is over-reacting? Or has the entire industry that surrounds her—the very industry that created and distributed this movie—become numb to monstrous deeds and subsequently inert as far as combatting the sense of futility it fosters? While the situation itself might be complex, your choice of answers remains this simplistically black or white. Any shade of gray automatically places you in camp number one because the word “over-reacting” is in itself an excuse that this sliver of gray automatically places in your vocabulary as a means to admonish the act while still allowing it to occur. Everything Jane’s boss does, however, (verbal abuse, psychological warfare, and/or sexual harassment) is objectively wrong.
We see this truth in the eyes of every single employee at the company. We see it when one male (Noah Robbins) assistant leaves the boss’ office post-screaming like a kicked puppy. We see it when another male assistant (Jon Orsini) walks over to coach Jane on how to write a mandatory apology email for forgetting that lying is the most important part of her job. There are the knowingly dejected sighs from Alexander Chaplin‘s Max and Dagmara Dominczyk‘s Ellen; the laughter from a jock-ish clique of producers remembering another time the chairman did what he’s doing now; and the unbridled rage of a scorned wife (Stéphanye Dussud) who refuses to be placated over the phone. They either admire his proclivities or finally resign themselves into accepting them.
That’s why Jane’s subtle acts of defiance are so potent. Not only do they allow her a modicum of pride considering she’s being paid in part to facilitate his indiscretions (the studio boss is only ever heard via muffled indignation courtesy of closed doors and telephone receivers), but they remind those around her how they’ve stopped fighting (if they ever fought it at all). She conjures looks of awe overshadowed by pity as co-workers attempt to guide her through the necessary steps of putting self-interest above moral imperative. They want Jane to realize she’s “lucky” insofar as having to bear the brunt of contempt rather than the humiliation of (presumed) sexual favors. But she’s not. She’s still forced to compromise and let him steal her consent.
Little by little her resolve chips away. Tears and frustration remain, but her ability to act is threatened with retribution. That’s what’s so heartbreaking about her place within this systematically broken industry. At a certain point right versus wrong becomes missing out on your dream versus grabbing it by the horns. We let our abusers wiggle free by saying a price must be paid. We give them the benefit of the doubt because we hold their apparent genius above the wellbeing of a revolving door of disposable pawns that might never get the chance to show their own as a result of his villainy. Earnest, external words of encouragement even get absorbed into this merry-go-round once courage becomes a mark of enduring pain rather than eradicating its source.
Green gets all of this and makes sure to never overplay her hand as far as leading Jane to some grand finale of clarity, heroism, or defeat. Her assistant is a cog in a machine built by men to prevent women from truly escaping that plight. It makes them reliant upon conditional “charity” and beholden to unnatural whims until many cases of success find the victor transformed into a monster of equal measure. Look no further than Wilcock’s cowardly mention of having to look out for hundreds of people at once—hundreds of jobs that a complaint against their boss could delete overnight. So is one young starry-eyed hopeful’s (Kristine Froseth‘s Sienna) innocence worth that risk? How about two? How about fifty? Suddenly enough is never enough.
This is why The Assistant must unfold without explosive drama. It’s why Green refuses to show or tell anything in concrete terms. She wants us to experience the silent prison of knowing the truth and being helpless against it. We’re to weigh the act of opening a box of medication, picking up jewelry, and scrubbing stains off couches against the context Jane’s circumstances provide (ED injections, evidence of mistresses, bodily fluids). That which on the surface is a common duty for someone in a thankless position such as hers gets exposed as so much more thanks to Garner’s portrayal of what it’s like to be trapped in stasis between the explicit and implicit meanings of each. A palpable, tense drama exists beyond the mundane day-to-day of all victims.
 Julia Garner stars as Jane in THE ASSISTANT, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street
 Julia Garner (left) stars as Jane and Kristine Froseth (right) stars as Sienna in THE ASSISTANT, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Courtesy of Bleecker Street
 Matthew Macfadyen stars as Wilcock in THE ASSISTANT, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street