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‘The Assistant’ Is Timeless—and All Too Timely

Hitting VOD on Tuesday, Kitty Green’s 2020 film about a low-level employee and her Weinstein-esque boss has much to say about the modern workplace, but it won’t do the work for you

Bleecker Street/Ringer illustration

The title character of Kitty Green’s The Assistant is the first to enter the office and the last to leave. First seen dozing in the back seat of an Uber en route from Astoria to Manhattan in the pitch black of a pre-rush-hour New York morning and last seen scarfing a fluffy muffin in the diner directly opposite her place of employ, Jane (Julia Garner) isn’t a workaholic so much as an emblem of a specific sector of millennial professionalism, a white-collar striver bumping up against the limits of her own upward mobility.

The topical hook of The Assistant, which debuted last fall at Telluride and played theatrically in January before arriving this week on VOD, is that Jane’s immediate superior is the Harvey Weinstein–like CEO of a Miramax-ish film production company. It’s a scenario that Green (Casting JonBenet) roots in recognizable entertainment-industry details. But beyond its shrewd engagement with (as opposed to exploitation of) a deeply charged set of sociocultural reference points (and undisguised, white-hot contempt for its Weinstein manque), The Assistant resonates as an allegory about the fundamentally draining nature of corporate work, which it depicts not simply as demoralizing but amoralizing, as well. It’s a tough movie, and on its own determinedly modest, claustrophobic terms, an extraordinary one: It gleams with a blinding bleakness that makes it one of the best American films released this year.

The Assistant works for a number of outstanding reasons, chief among them the casting and acting of Garner, whose changeability is remarkable without being showy. It’s difficult to reconcile Garner’s roles on The Americans and Ozark (for which she won an Emmy) not just because of their different performance styles but because she has the ability—native to career character actors but increasingly rare in stars—to physically disappear into her parts. Here, she cuts a sleek figure prone to slumping from a pileup of responsibilities, her blond hair pulled back tight over a furrowed brow. The name of the game for Jane, who is not given a last name and only rarely identified by her first, is an austere, reliable brand of self-effacement: In the film’s hypnotic opening sequence, she goes about a series of small, menial, and/or crucial tasks in the darkened office, as if trying not to be seen despite the fact that she’s alone.

Whether Jane has a naturally recessive personality or this rectitude represents her with her game face on is hard to say. The Assistant has been structured to occlude any reality beyond the tightly packed warren of lobbies, conference rooms, and cubicles that make up its setting. Anything that happens before or after the duration of the work day doesn’t exist. Within this highly constrained setup, Garner manages to convey a sense of numbness as distinct from blankness—an important difference. Jane is not a mindless automaton so much as a woman learning how to strategically conceal her thoughts behind avid, darting eyes—a routine that renders disgust indistinguishable from deference. “It gets easier,” she’s told late in the film, a piece of advice meant in good faith to help steel her for the long haul in a demanding (and highly in-demand) job; in light of what the film shows us about her gig—including and especially how much of it involves helping a powerful man cover his tracks—this helpful suggestion of a gradually increasing ease and facility is devastating.

The Assistant is not a plot-driven movie, finding its shape in the idea of a “typical” day—a Monday, it seems, given that Jane’s male coworkers immediately begin comparing notes on their weekend after cruising in a few hours after she clocks in. It’s becoming a cliché to call any movie with a budget south of Marvel’s “subtle” or “grown-up,” but Green’s insistence that her audience lean in and pay attention in order to understand what’s going on at any given moment displays a heartening mixture of faith and confidence. Even though we never see Jane’s boss—he’s glimpsed out of the corner of the camera eye a couple of times going in and out of meetings, and heard cursing over an intercom and through a frosted office window—we become intimately familiar with his itinerary, which encompasses a range of power-brokering activities, including, in what probably qualifies as the film’s biggest narrative event, breaking in a new “assistant,” a corn-fed Idahoan coed (Kristine Froseth) hired on the barest pretense of qualifications and set up in a cozy suite at a downtown hotel.

The sleaziness of this turn of events is immediately alarming and recognizable to us, and to Jane, whom by this point in the film we’ve seen unboxing and securing erectile dysfunction meds and plucking discarded earrings off the floor. In a less complex movie, Jane’s concern and subsequent attempt to express her reservations could be a heroic, whistle-blowing beat, but Green and Garner keep it shaded in ambiguity. Presenting her case to the company’s HR director, Jane is not only quickly intimidated into silence but also accused of a jealousy that, however cravenly implied, isn’t completely ruled out by Garner’s performance. (The casting of none other than Tom Wambsgans himself, Matthew Macfadyen, as the HR director, an avatar of moneyed, boys’ club expediency, is deliciously insidious, and his portrait of phony concern belongs in the one-scene performance hall of fame.) We’re sympathetic to Jane insofar as she becomes a functionary-slash–punching bag for all kinds of bad (and worse) male behavior, and yet her unwillingness to cash out—especially after her attempt at an intervention ends in humiliation—complicates any trajectory of pure victimhood: From its title on down, The Assistant tingles with subtexts of complicity that feel as intricate and irreducible as the sins they are attached to are base and appalling.

It’s this microcosmic approach to ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter that distinguishes The Assistant, a movie that sketches top-down hierarchies of power while rigorously constructing its cinematic world from the ground up. Several critics have cited the late Belgian master filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s 1975 domestic epic Jeanne Dielman as a point of comparison for Green’s achievement—specifically the way both movies pressurize and politicize downtime by focusing on repetitive, ritualistic behavior. But where Akerman’s apartment-bound heroine eventually acts out against her literal and figurative imprisonment, exploding the tone of the movie around her through an impulsive gesture of violence, Jane remains solely acted upon during The Assistant’s duration. As a result, instead of appearing to us a woman trapped by circumstance, she quite disturbingly takes on the look of somebody who is, on some level, right where she belongs—aspiration as a form of purgatory. When she tells Macfadyen’s character that she dreams of being a producer (a comment that he responds to with cloying, expert condescension), we’re caught between admiring her ambition and wondering how she can possibly, plausibly harbor these fantasies in light of what she has (and we have) seen. Even if you don’t take The Assistant first and foremost as a meditation on power and how even a little bit of proximity to it opens the door for corruption, its vision of the movie business as an arena of cold, focus-tested calculation, in which artistry becomes subordinated along with everything else to the bottom line, is chilling. Of all the excuses used to prop up (or apologize for) Weinstein before he became a pariah, the idea of his braying, bullying cult of personality as tied to real cinephilia was the most pernicious (ask Bong Joon-ho or James Gray what they think about that).

Green doesn’t go too far in illustrating the kind of movies that Jane’s company specializes in: a few posters and a priceless cameo by Patrick Wilson as himself riding an elevator with Garner in stony silence are the only explicit showbiz signifiers. The suggestion, though, is that its output is catering to a sophisticated, metropolitan demographic—for example, the kind of audience that would go see The Assistant at a film festival, which adds a layer of autocritique to a movie that’s already considerably more spacious on the inside than the outside. Without ever getting flashy with the direction in terms of cutting or camera movement, Green and her key collaborators—cinematographer Michael Latham, editor Blair McClendon, and especially production designer Fletcher Chancey, who was responsible for the authentic indie-rock squalor of Her Smell—have crafted a film whose surpassing drabness gradually metastasizes into an uncanny beauty; the slowly dimming natural light streaming through the office windows encompassing its own wordless, definitive narrative of fading hopes.

Like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always—another movie whose apparent intimacy belies a larger cultural commentary—The Assistant is a top-notch American movie on the verge of becoming collateral damage in an endless spring that’s rewiring our collective viewing habits. Ideally, it’s the sort of film that would accrue enough acclaim to appear on year-end best-of lists and at least be a part of awards season conversations—that no longer feels possible. As the global industry contemplates impending losses across a spectrum of platforms and markets, the ultimate fate of a small-scale indie that already got its shot in theaters feels like, at best, a footnote to a larger problem. Yet there’s something about Green’s scrupulous, deceptively unassuming feature that will keep it relevant and impressive beyond its allotted spot as a conversation piece—a proverbial movie of the moment with a shot at being timeless.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.