What recourse do you have when there are no ways to achieve justice? How complicit are you in the actions you can’t control? These are the questions writer/director Kitty Green asks in her dynamite debut The Assistant, featuring one of the best lead performances of the year by Julia Garner.
Jane gets to work before everyone else and does everything: turning on lights, starting the coffee maker, and making ungodly amounts of copies. The casual sexism and power dynamic in the building is obvious, but not overt. Jane works hard and doesn’t make a fuss.
When her boss’ wife calls, her two slimy male counterparts (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) pass the call to her. She tries her best to deflect without lying. The situation seems defused until the boss calls her to rip her a new one. Jane takes it in stride and types out an apology email with some assistance from her male co-workers, who obviously have experience in this area.
Jane moves on, but each small glimpse at the different parts of her job build an escalating foundation of the sexual improprieties that exist in her workplace. When she straightens up the boss’ office, she finds loose earrings and hair ties. She also cleans, what can only be assumed as bodily fluids off the office couch.
There is no mystery to what is going on. Other executives make jokes about the couch and references to previous dalliances the boss had at various events. Jane knows that there is more than meets the eye, as she restocks his supply of erectile dysfunction syringes, which she ends up removing from his trash and depositing into her own. When she ushers in a new assistant (Kristine Froseth) to a five-star hotel, she reaches her limit.
She knows she lives in a civilized society and there are safeguards in place to handle this. She heads over to HR to talk to Wilcock (a gloriously sleazy Matthew MacFadyen) about the boss’ behavior. As she continues, Wilcock starts shooting holes in her story, begins to berate her and show his true colors. Now what is Jane supposed to do?
The gray areas between what you know is right and what you know is wrong is where this film thrives. It asks very difficult questions about what is occurring, but also how much Jane is complicit. She went to HR, she took the correct routes…now what is she supposed to do?
No one is actively complicit, but no one is innocent either. Everyone in the building knows what is going on behind those doors and on that couch, but everyone shrugs it off because with one phone call, the boss could end your career and this is an exclusive career track to be on. The power the boss wields without ever explicitly saying it speaks volumes.
Garner is in every scene of the film and commands your attention. The prime example of an actress having her face do the talking over the dialogue. Garner internalizes not only her reluctance to continue down her road, but her inner turmoil as well as a hefty amount of stress. It’s not only that Jane has to deal with the things she sees, she also works 15 hours a day and it takes a mental toll that Garner imbues without beating you over the head with it. What would your life look like if you had no joy in your day, your meals were hastily prepared and unhealthy and any slight slip ups could mean the end of your career? Garner puts on a true masterclass of show-don’t-tell.
At a mere 88 minutes encompassing a single day of Jane’s work, never has 88 minutes felt like an eternity in a good way. My wife joked that if the movie were any longer it would be too depressing to deal with. Green makes no mistakes and carves every bit of meat off the bone in the most direct way without adding in inorganic exposition. Green and Garner deserve all the praise they are recieving and will now have lofty expectations their next time around.