Julia Garner plays Jane, an aspiring young producer who is five weeks into her job as executive assistant at an unnamed film production company in New York. The Assistant icily documents a ordinary day at the office, where as the low (wo)man on the totem pole, Jane is expected to be "first in, first out" at the office – turning on the lights, filling the guest fridge with Fiji Water bottles, making the coffee, picking up women's jewelry off the floor of the chairman's office, and spraying down his couch with disinfectant.
Those last two details tell you what you need to know about this chairman, and what he gets up to behind closed doors. The Assistant's Lower Manhattan setting obviously makes this a thinly-veiled allusion to Harvey Weinstein. Yet by keeping its all-powerful executive unnamed and unseen – we only hear his muffled voice over the phone a couple of times, cursing out poor Jane whenever she suspects foul play – The Assistant reminds us that such predatory behavior is hardly limited to Weinstein, or even to the entertainment industry. Moreover, the film quietly excoriates all the yes-men (and women) who enable people like Weinstein to do horrible things, all to secure their own ascent up the industry ladder, and terrified that one false move could ruin their careers. The atmosphere at this anonymous company is joyless, paranoid, and claustrophobic – and it is 100% authentic.
After college, I spent the summer as a script reader (unpaid, naturally) for a couple of biggish production companies in LA. One eventually hired me to answer the phone for a few days (paid). While the boss, Edward R. Pressman, was by all accounts a decent human being, there was some under-producer at the company who was an absolute creep, screaming and swearing at the men and screaming and swearing and leering at the women. (I forget his name; he never amounted to anything.) Tense, hostile, self-serving, intimidating, and sexist – until (hopefully) the last year or so, this has very much been the climate at any given production company, and The Assistant's writer/director/coeditor Kitty Green has captured it with total accuracy.
The film may make some viewers squirm, and not just because of its disheartening subject matter, but because Green's bone-dry approach – she has a documentary background – dispenses with actorly speechifying, plot mechanics, even camera movement. Her film unfolds in a series of well-framed static shots, with silence punctuated only by office machinery and throwaway conversations overlapping each other as they do. (Kudos to veteran sound designer Leslie Shatz for his quietly menacing soundscape.) It's so subtle that, when supporting characters mutter a couple of lines that confirm Jane's suspicions about their lecherous boss, it almost sounds like Green added the dialogue to remind slower audience members that what Jane thinks is happening is, in fact, happening.
If you're looking for high drama and any sort of payoff, head over to Bombshell, a similar story about life at Fox News under the assaultive Roger Ailes. But Bombshell is Hollywood pabulum compared to The Assistant, which will send shivers of recognition down the spine of anyone who has worked at such a toxic environment – and many of us have. While some may find it dull, I found it chilling. Fictitious though it may be, I don't think you'll ever find a more convincing explanation of how someone like Harvey Weinstein could get away with so much for so long.