Published on May 8th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Kitty Green’s Sundance darling is finally available on VOD. It’s a nuanced portrait of toxic masculinity and capitalistic subjugation in a Weinstein-esque production office.
The Assistant is boring. Kitty Green’s debut feature is razor sharp by way of dullness, the banality of everyday life, the daily grind. The film opens on Jane (Julia Garner) exiting a dingy New York apartment to be chauffeured to her office in a shiny Mercedez. The awkward juxtaposition of the privileged and the pedestrian is made painfully obvious right out the gate. Within the seemingly glitzy world of a New York production office is the office prole who sullenly performs her thankless tasks with a teeth-grinding grit. However, Green makes it painfully clear the vulnerability that lies beneath the surface.
What follows is a sequence that, believe it or not, conjured memories of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels—Green places a similar emphasis on the shitwork, the time-suck of chores that the rest of Jane’s colleagues don’t seem to even register, let alone appreciate. Jane flicks on the lights, makes the coffee, cleans out the fridge, prints out entire trees worth of scripts, itineraries, etc. Green makes sure to catalogue this monotony with excruciating precision, leaving no stone unturned. The camera is a fly on the steel-toned walls of her boss’ office.
Her boss is, though we don’t see more than the back of his head out of focus in the background, very clearly a Harvey Weinstein type. This is not revealed so much as it is laid out in such plain and unignorable detail that you’d have to have been living under a rock for the last five years to not put two and two together. His austere voice sounds like him; his build, his hairline, most importantly his overarching spectre that haunts his office so clearly invokes him. As the film—which takes place over the course of one single, all-encompassing day in Jane’s career as an assistant—moves through its first act it becomes abundantly clear what kind of subject matter we are in for. That the characterization of Jane and the stiff banality of her job is table-setting for a much larger and more thorough treatise on Weinstein’s (and show business as a whole’s) insidious culture of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Julia Garner is this movie. Her performance is its very substance. I can’t remember the last time I saw an actor or actress put an entire film exclusively on their shoulders like this. What’s truly remarkable is her calmness, her poise—her character is quiet, tepid, yet the deeper emotions she carries, the ever-increasing concern and anxiety she goes through as she begins to realize that her job likely facilitates the manipulation and abuse of young actresses, is evoked so patiently. Its there in every frame, in every expression, without making the film feel like a mallet sized pity-party.
Credit also goes to Green’s assured composition, which is careful to foreground her protagonist without getting romantic about her struggle. In almost every shot, the camera is static and its mise-en-scene bears a wide scope, a democratization—Green isn’t forcing the viewer’s gaze as much as she carefully composes situations into which the audience must investigate for themselves. However, she does have a calculated sense of when to cut to close up, when to suck the viewer into Jane’s internal world. She does just enough to give the viewer the guidance necessary to discover for themselves the insidious toxicity, the mounting weight of being used. A lesser film would bend to pressure to spoon-feeding the viewer its philosophy; Green has the confidence to trust her audience, which actually elevates the poignancy of the material.
For Jane, she learns quickly that show-business is a game and that the fix is in. Yet, the film adds up to much more than a #MeToo-driven PSA. It speaks to the all-encompassing uphill battle women face in so many industries, the privilege that has become so entrenched in their goings on that it becomes an impossible quandary rooted in which of their values to sacrifice in service of the end goal. Some female characters in the film participate in the culture of silence; one woman tells Jane “don’t worry, she’s getting more out of it than he is.” The film does due diligence to every angle, not only illustrating the culpability of men, but also the dehumanizing weight placed upon women in this industry to adopt a jaded attitude, to look the other way.
I think the film also reads as a larger metaphor for the plight of the laborer in the world of late capitalism, a sobering reality check on hierarchy and who holds the keys to the castle in this crazy world. Green crafts a perfect centrifuge for all those things to intersect, for their respective frustrations to be revealed. It works as an all-encompassing collage of the kind of problematic tendencies that industries like show-business have been all too guilty of. The kind that eludes any phraseology, any manner of written explanation. They need to be seen. They need to be felt. And this film succeeds so brilliantly in making you feel what so many recent films, shows, songs, books have only been able to instruct us on.