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Set In A Banal Office,'The Assistant' Mirrors Our Complicity To Systemic Evil

Julia Garner stars as Jane in "The Assistant." (Courtesy Bleecker Street)
Julia Garner stars as Jane in "The Assistant." (Courtesy Bleecker Street)

It’s amazing what people can get used to. Indeed, one of the unexpected lessons from this insane chapter of American history is how after a while, even the craziest, previously unthinkable things start to feel kind of ordinary — or at least, eventually become unobtrusive enough for us to get on with our day. “The Assistant,” writer-director Kitty Green’s sickly, spellbinding drama, is about exactly this kind of normalization.

Set in the lower Manhattan offices of an unnamed movie studio that looks an awful lot like Miramax, the film follows a typical day at work for Jane, a recent Northwestern grad hired as an entry-level admin for an unnamed, bellicose boss who sounds an awful lot like Harvey Weinstein.

We never do get a clear view of the monster. We see him obscured by the back of a chair, or hear his voice muffled through the phone. But his presence is felt everywhere and it’s heavy.

This is a skittish office, with most of the communication coming through whispers, nods and nervous looks. Jane labors alongside two dudes just a couple of years older than her, who condescendingly pass along the “women’s work” while tentatively rehearsing the kind of macho swagger and back-slapping we see from producers who breeze in and out looking for the boss. She takes it all in without a word, alert and walking on eggshells.

Garner as Jane in "The Assistant. (Courtesy Bleecker Street)
Garner as Jane in "The Assistant. (Courtesy Bleecker Street)

Jane arrives at work before dawn – her view of the New York City skyline a sly mockery of Miramax’s opening logo during its mid-'90s heyday. She sets about opening the office, making coffee, etc. The film fixates on the monotony of mundane tasks, wallowing in the tedium of lunch orders and trips to the Xerox machine. Jane’s morning duties extend to tidying up the boss’s inner office, which means scrubbing strange stains off his couch and returning broken bits of jewelry to their rightful owners later in the day. Sometimes, there are syringes lying around.

It’s all a matter of routine, which the movie conveys with an artfully numbed sense of dread. After only five weeks on the job, Jane can already tell something very wrong is going on, but everybody blankly works around it. Business as usual. When stories about Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and their like finally broke a couple years back, people wondered how these men could get away with such things in a crowded workplace. “The Assistant” illustrates how entrenched power structures perpetuate themselves in an office environment, and how everybody who’s interested in sticking around for very long knows enough to mind their place and when to look the other way.

Writer-director Kitty Green based the script on scores of interviews with actual film industry assistants, and it’s often cringe-inducing in its depictions of powerlessness. (This has got to be the most agonizingly observant movie ever made with regard to elevator etiquette.) Both times during the day that Jane finds herself penning apologies to her apoplectic employer, she makes sure to once again thank him for the opportunity, noting how lucky she is to be in this position that’s envied by so many. This is the kind of story that could easily be sensationalized, but Green keeps it on an often exasperatingly even keel. The boss’ behavior is just another part of the day-to-day drudgery, the banality of evil.

Green’s previous picture was the 2017 quasi-documentary “Casting JonBenet,” which recruited Colorado actors to audition for roles in a never-filmed movie about the unsolved Ramsey case, interviewing them about their own suspicions and conspiracy theories. The film became a queasy portrait of our country’s true crime addiction while exposing what an obscenity it would be to make a movie about the murder in the first place. “The Assistant” similarly avoids exploitation (and presumably lots of legal troubles) by turning Harvey Weinstein into an unnamed abstraction standing in for power-abusing perverts in offices everywhere. This isn’t a single dragon that can be easily slain. He’s systemic.

The movie is also constantly complicating our responses to Jane, played with perfectly shell-shocked poise by "Ozark" Emmy-winner Julia Garner as a pixie-ish Sphinx. When the character’s conscience finally seems to get the best of her, we have trouble telling if she’s acting out of genuine concern or professional jealousy. I don’t think Jane really knows for sure either, but the sequence culminates in a visit to human resources that’s more disturbing than anything I’ve seen in a horror movie lately. “The Assistant” is constantly reminding us that our complicity and that of others is what allows evil to flourish.

Matthew Macfadyen stars as Wilcock in "The Assistant." (Courtesy Bleecker Street)
Matthew Macfadyen stars as Wilcock in "The Assistant." (Courtesy Bleecker Street)

This isn’t something like “Bombshell,” where we’re invited to stand up and cheer as the celebrity heroine vanquishes a villain and scores an Oscar nomination for her efforts. There’s no rah-rah, crowd-pleasing ending to be found in this story, and it would be irresponsible for a filmmaker to invent one. “The Assistant” is not an easy movie to watch, but it’s even harder to shake off.

“The Assistant” is now playing at Kendall Square Cinema and the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

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Sean Burns Twitter Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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