The dull humdrum of the office takes on a kind of bizarre poetry: you find yourself humming along to the copier, placing kitchen objects in patterned formations, making slightly stranger, more deliberate movements throughout your day to give the unremarkable work of assistantship a modicum of structure and meaning. The Assistant captures this game well: the mental gymnastics required to convince oneself that perhaps it isn’t that bad.
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The Assistant is a quiet film. The bulk of the protagonist’s interactions occur between herself and the inanimate: the dull hum of the fluorescent lights as she clicks them on early in the morning, the rattle of the drawer as she restocks medication for her boss, the drip of the faucet as she cleans a mug she did not herself use, and most arrestingly, the whir of the Xerox as she prints out headshot after headshot of beautiful women.
“She” is Jane, the titular assistant, played with understated intensity by Julia Garner. Despite working for a film company, Jane is forced to engage with the most corporate and boring of machines: a fabulous and very real irony that most assistants face. As an assistant – full disclosure, I am one, and in the entertainment industry, no less – you build intimate relationships with everyday objects. The dull humdrum of the office takes on a kind of bizarre poetry: you find yourself humming along to the copier, placing kitchen objects in patterned formations, making slightly stranger, more deliberate movements throughout your day to give the unremarkable work of assistantship a modicum of structure and meaning. The Assistant captures this game well: the mental gymnastics required to convince oneself that perhaps it isn’t that bad.
The muted nature of Jane’s workplace forces you to listen closely, and even, at times, strain to hear what you never will. Director Kitty Green ensures that substantial face-to-face conversation escapes us for most of the film. Silence, we learn, will always speak volumes; talking circles around the obvious, feigning ignorance, and shutting doors are criminal acts in and of themselves. Green gifts us with many clues of corruption: there is the earring Jane finds on the screening room floor, and the stains she must clean off the couch. There is the long process of carting the pretty new assistant (Kristine Froseth) to a hotel to meet the boss, the subtly crass office jokes, and the helpless phone calls from the boss’s wife as the office thwarts her attempts to track her husband’s whereabouts.
These overt #MeToo moments are affecting, to be sure, but equally affecting are the instances of office hierarchy that render Jane almost completely invisible. For the first half of the film, she rarely speaks unless it is to supplicate – bringing sandwiches for the office, dutifully asking how someone’s weekend was, or exchanging awkward non-verbal niceties with actor Patrick Wilson in an elevator, only after visibly contemplating whether or not to say something substantial (Garner makes compelling work of this quandary – her expression is pained, hopeful, and ashamed all at once). In one scene, we find her apologizing to her boss, whose gruff voice crackles over the phone line. Jane’s colleagues pretend not to be listening to him scold her, but of course, in such a small, silent office, they have heard, and it is humiliating. At one point, after Jane receives an angry email, her co-workers stand over her shoulder, murmuring words to her in unison, relaying exactly what she should say to diffuse the situation. This moment feels more like procedure than camaraderie: this is just how things should be done. One must say sorry.
The boss in question is never seen in full. My viewing companion didn’t remember seeing him at all, but in one shot, he is there from the back, his neck thick atop an expensive suit collar, his squat, balding frame pacing – the boss is a Weinstein double, and his presence kicks off a parade of studio villains. In a meeting of executives, man after man waltzes into the room, followed at last by one woman. She wears a dull suit, slightly ill-fitting and masculine in cut. Her hair is pulled back, and there’s not a stich of makeup in sight. This styling choice is deliberate: the executive’s appearance is a clear imitation of masculine modes of power, modes this woman has likely confronted for her entire life. Jane looks at this woman with a kind of newfound hope, but with one withering glace, her optimism is quashed. The woman does not indulge her, and instead joins the men. Jane leaves the room without an ally, returning to her desk as the emails silently ding in.
The desire to accrue power by any means and the ensuing impulse to never share trickle down from the top to the lowest stratum. No one is immune, not even Jane; in a moment of frustration, she snaps, via telephone, at a driver who has not arrived on time. She emulates the power that she had been at the mercy of only moments ago, wielding it against the one person in a lesser position than she.
Perhaps some of Jane’s frustration stems from the sad truth at the heart of the film: an assistant is rarely trusted with tasks relating to that which they ostensibly came to do (i.e., make movies), but they are casually trusted with the private details of their bosses’ lives: the embarrassing, the tertiary, the work-unrelated, and above all, deeply personal elements of existence. Garner does not work on production at her office, but instead watches her boss’s kid fool around with filing cabinets, calms his angry wife, cleans up his crumbs, deals with his medication, and yells at his drivers. Her life is built around a certain level of trust granted to her by her boss, and a certain level of feigned ignorance. It often becomes farcical for assistants to pretend not to have seen what they have seen. Having been in this position alongside many of my friends and acquaintances, I can say with certainty that when one spends hours getting a massage refunded, or leaves work to wait for pool furniture to be delivered, it is nearly impossible to look at the boss and not see these things, too. But this trust is also a denigration; it does not matter how the assistant sees the boss, because the boss never truly sees the assistant.
The trust ruptures when Jane decides to report her boss’s crimes to Human Resources. She goes to speak to an HR exec, a cunning Matthew McFayden (McFayden is excellent casting; his large blue eyes are as disarming, round, and open as a toddler’s). Engulfed by her large puffer coat, which she declines to take off, Jane relays the evidence of her boss’s misdeeds She unleashes a flood of distress, disappointment, and tears; it comes out so inelegantly, I could not help but cringe. It’s easy to sympathize with Jane’s position: beginning to relay systemic injustice, then suddenly finding that it dovetails directly into your own abuse, preventing you from seeing the rationality in the argument, only the unending spiral down.
This monologue is more than Jane has spoken throughout the entire film, and the cutting response shows us why she usually holds her tongue: McFayden nods and speaks almost rhythmically, as though attempting to instill a mantra. He speaks back her worst fears: a laundry list of reasons why she is not only unbelievable, but also a rat who’s about to lose the one chance she has at success. Not only is he every doubt embodied, he also makes it deeply clear to Jane that she is incredibly replaceable.
Green is no stranger to replaceability. In fact, it is the driving force of much of her prior work. Her short film The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul and her feature Casting JonBenet employ the same narrative device: multiple actors come in and read for the same lead roles. The actors, in the same clothes, reading the same lines, all with similar affects, begin to blend together. They are wholly their characters, wholly each other, and only in very rare cases, themselves. Likewise, in The Assistant, one sees that Jane could be absolutely anybody; her routines and actions are borrowed or learned, never invented.
The Assistant is about the systems in place that support nefarious men, but it is also about alienation in the Marxist sense, the “loss of self” that comes from work. Marx’s description of this condition, in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, is strikingly apt: “The more the worker expends himself in work, the more powerful becomes the world of objects which he creates in face of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life, and the less he belongs to himself.” Jane works to fuel a powerful machine: the more she excels in her role, the more powerful her boss becomes. Marx writes that “the object produced by labor, its product, now stands opposed to it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer” [italics added]. Before Jane becomes a capital P Producer, the title to which she aspires, she must first be a lowlier, little p producer. The perceived innocence of her boss is her product, which, quite literally, stands apart from her, further perpetuating the system in which she is trapped.
The long day ends for Jane and nothing is right. We find ourselves in silence again; all that can be heard is the crinkle of paper as she unwraps her food at a nearby bodega, the prelude to a meal that would be out of place in her fancy workplace. In this setting, Green drives the point of power home: outside of the rarefied linoleum air of the office, Jane makes a call to her parents back in wherever they’re from – it could be anywhere in America, maybe someplace that’s never seen a film set or does not quite know what a producer does. They are, in any case, worlds away. Even to her parents, Jane speaks in code: “It’s been a hard day,” she tells them. This does not even scratch the surface. Her parents do not hear the dog whistle; they tell her that they are proud of her for working so hard. The statement is made in earnest: an attempt to sate and commiserate while firmly suggesting that she must go on, that there is no other option. Jane decides not to press with the details. The truth is that the silence follows her out of the office; at this point, no one but us knows the insidious nature of her assistant work and the isolation Jane endures to do it, and it doesn’t even matter. She hangs up the phone and the lights buzz, the paper crumples. She looks out the window to see her boss’s silhouette through the window blinds, presumably hooking up with a colleague or prospective actress. Beyond the bodega’s brightly colored bubble sits a dark world. She stares out for a beat longer, then takes a bite.
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Images are screenshots from the film’s trailers. The DVD release is scheduled for April 28, 2020, the same day it’s available in Digital HD on Amazon and iTunes.