Movie Review: The Assistant

How do some workplace predators get away with it? Quietly incendiary indie provides clues.

Like many of you, I’ve had have a hard time grasping how the people who worked with Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein turned a blind eye to his many alleged crimes. How is that no one turned him in to the police or wrote a scathing exposé or staged a walkout? The quietly incendiary indie The Assistant sheds some light on the kind of workspace that could lead to such a culture of silence.

The film executive that our heroine, Jane (Julia Garner), works for is not Harvey Weinstein, per se, but he’s essentially modeled after the Miramax/Weinstein Co. titan. Tellingly, he’s never seen, but his presence looms malevolently over the entire movie.

As an assistant, Jane’s job is to get coffee, Xerox and bind scripts, make travel arrangements, and the like. She comes in early, before anyone else arrives, and tidies up the big boss’ office. She finds an earring under the couch and discreetly removes it.

Her desk is directly outside the mogul’s office, along with two other production assistants who manage to live in fear of their all-powerful boss and also acquit themselves with the kind of cocky jocularity that comes with knowing you have one of the best jobs in the business. They downplay or make jokes about the mogul’s sexual transgressions—“Never sit on the couch” they crack. They also treat Jane like a paeon. One of the young men throws balled up pieces of paper at her whenever he wants to get her attention. He also forces Jane to deal with an angry mistress of the mogul’s on the phone, which will eventually enrage the boss. (The other production assistant, in a burst of noblesse oblige, tries to help Jane construct a letter of apology. Be sure to mention how much you appreciate the opportunity to work here, he reminds her.)

The mogul’s anger is quick, profligate, and indiscriminate. He’s an abuser. The key is to get him to focus his rage on somebody else, preferably a woman.

It’s not all men who work in the office, but mostly men. And the women, it seems, have become hardened. They act like men themselves—intolerant of any behavior that is perceived as weak.

The film, which mostly concerns itself with the quotidian details of Jane’s day, pivots a bit when the mogul’s new assistant arrives from Idaho. She’s pretty and impossibly young. She was a cater waitress at an event the mogul attended in Sun Valley and the mogul took a liking to her. She arrives at the office bursting with youthful naivete and excitement. It’s Jane’s job to put her up at a nice hotel near the office.

Afraid for this girl, Jane goes to see the company’s HR director, Wilcock (a wonderfully unctuous Matthew Macfadyen). I won’t tell you exactly what transpires in that scene—the best in the film—but suffice it to say that the subtle look of pain on Garner’s face when Jane realizes that Wilcock’s mission is to protect the company, not its employees, is devastating.

One thing I wish the film gave us more of: Jane’s personality beyond that of a hard-working and put upon assistant. We see that she has integrity, when she goes to Wilcock. And we see her eyes well up with tears—or flash with rage—when she witnesses injustice. But she’s a bit of a cipher, a symbol of the kind of young woman who might learn to keep her head down in an environment like this. It’s an intentional choice by writer/director Kitty Green, but in my book, a bit more specificity to her character would’ve taken the film to the next level.

What the film does make clear, however, is that everyone is in survival mode at this studio. They’re so busy not pissing off the boss, keeping their jobs, passing unsavory tasks onto underlings, they lose themselves in the process. They all know what a great opportunity this is. So they ignore (or in some cases laugh off) his crimes, do the work, and let the monster run free.