Written and directed by Kitty Green, a searing look at a day in the life of an assistant to a powerful executive, as Jane (Julia Garner) follows her daily routine, she grows increasingly aware of the insidious abuse that threatens every aspect of her position. Also starring: Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Patrick Wilson, Kristine Froseth, Matthew Macfayden, Dagmara Domińczyk, Makenzie Leigh, Bregje Heinen, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin and Clara Wong.
A film that quite possibly couldn’t have made a more timely release, having appeared during a time where so many finally felt able to speak out against abuse and particularly cases involving people of power in the film industry, it couldn’t have been more relevant. Tackling an issue such as this is a thing that needs to be done delicately, sensitively and respectfully, turning this type of abuse into a side-show for melodramatics would be completely unnecessary but that’s not even slightly a worry as writer, director, editor Green handles the whole thing with a quiet, elegant grace. It’s a difficult thing to hand audiences a situation which is unapologetically frustrating and even infuriating in such an understated, slow and thoughtful style, as undoubtedly it won’t click for everyone but it’s an incredible achievement from Green, who does it almost effortlessly.
Her directorial style is so beautifully detailed, it may look like your average office visual to some but pay attention and you’ll notice all the red flags that appear throughout, enhanced by Green’s choice of shots and Michael Latham’s cinematography. It’s superb how much a simple shot has to say in this film, it adds a huge layer of depth to events which are already sincerely full of meaning. There’s so many clever touches to the film that emphasise the situation, particularly the way in which they don’t ever use Jane’s name; it’s something simple that could go unnoticed but that act alone shows such a huge amount of disrespect. The writing encapsulates a toxic, condescending, abusive environment unbelievably well in such a subtle fashion, for anyone who’s only ever had positive experiences in work then you might not recognise all the signs but this film will likely strongly resonate with anyone at all familiar with these types of behaviours. It catches such a wide range from microaggressions to overt abuses of power, some of them you can see coming and induce such a powerful frustration and anger that it’s almost uncomfortable to watch, whether it be a blatant disregard to privacy, frequent side-eye or simple invasion of personal space. Particularly the way that they capture Jane’s wish to speak out is masterfully infuriating yet depressingly accurate. Everything about the writing, direction, editing and cinematography perfectly captures the environment that they’re trying to emulate, even so far as it might be triggering for a lot of people and it’s a flawless showing of talent from Green, a filmmaker that is one to keep a close eye on.
All that work would probably stand on its own but it doesn’t have to because it’s extremely well supported by its lead Julia Garner, best known for her Emmy-winning role in Ozark, her performance is so vulnerable yet strong, it balances the two perfectly. The body language that Garner presents as Jane shows a huge level of talent, she’s constantly bringing herself inward as if to protect herself from what she’s seeing and perceiving, added to constantly picking at her fingernails, a nervous, anxious habit showing her inner conflict and frustrations. She also even alters her posture slightly when presented with her superiors, a reflection of feeling threatened by her awareness of how vindictive the industry can be and how precarious her position is. Altogether there are so many layers to her performance that it’s utterly engrossing to watch. Special mention to Matthew Macfayden whose brief role will possibly be the most you’ve ever wanted to punch him in the face (even more than as Mr. Darcy), and Kristine Froseth who provides a great deal of naivety and blissful ignorance in her minimal time.
The Assistant will make you simultaneously furious and riveted, the way that it exposes both the subtle and overt behaviours encountered in a toxic, abusive work environment is incredibly skilful. It will have you holding your breath on the edge of your seat willing Jane to leave, to not breakdown and to not give in to her frustrations, it’s almost torture having to watch her be browbeaten and ignored while the film gives you such an uncontrollable desire to protect her. It’s a quietly damning portrayal of abuse and disrespect, exploring not only those who commit it themselves but those that enable their behaviour, its level of detail is incredible and Julia Garner’s performance as Jane is one of her finest to date. Green has showed here that she’s a truly talented filmmaker that can use her style to say a lot with a little.