The Assistant is the best type of slightly disappointing film: one that goes down swinging. Documentarian Kitty Green’s first narrative feature is so gosh-darn close to being one of the best thrillers of the past several years that you can’t help but be a little bummed when it turns out to simply be very, very good. Not-so-subtly based on entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer currently on trial for a myriad of alleged sexually based offenses, The Assistant is effectively bone-chilling even if it doesn’t leave you with much to chew on.
The film follows a day in the dreary life of Jane (Julia Garner in an almost entirely dialogue-free role). She is an entry-level assistant for an unnamed—and unseen—producer at a major Hollywood studio. First one to arrive at the office and last one to leave, Jane spends her day being scrutinized by her peers over mundane tasks. Whether it’s getting coffee, copying and binding scripts, or taking calls from angry ex-wives, so much of the film’s tension stems from anticipation that Jane will be criticized no matter what she does.
Slowly but surely, Jane realizes something is wrong. Very wrong. It starts with minor details that don’t quite add up. The producer’s ex-wife doesn’t seem nearly as “crazy” as Jane’s co-workers suggest, off-handed jokes about not sitting on the producer’s couch, and an attractive new assistant meeting the boss at a hotel. It’s obvious there’s an open secret in the office that Jane’s not quite “in” on. Yet… Filmed mostly in long, static wide shots, with no musical score, we spend most of The Assistant just observing Jane while she observes others.
Many of the film’s detractors and champions agree the lack of an obvious climax is The Assistant’s cardinal sin. That probably has a bit more to do with these types of “slow-burn” thrillers building to fantastical finales. For example, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a really boring movie punctuated by explosive violence. The “big scene” in The Assistant is an HR meeting from hell at the film’s midway point. Jane is repeatedly gaslit by a company rep (Matthew Macfadyen) who seems to genuinely believe he’s helping her out. Even when the rep offers Jane a tissue to wipe away her tears, sliding the weightless cardboard box across his desk sounds like teeth scraping against pavement.
No one doubts The Assistant is an expertly crafted film. Every technical aspect works spectacularly. Garner’s performance, the fly-on-the-wall cinematography, the excruciatingly quiet sound design and so on. It’s a tense thriller that creates tense thrills. Job done. However, it makes run-of-the-mill statements about powerful men and the environments where they thrive.
If you follow the #MeToo news, The Assistant won’t tell you anything you don’t already know. If you don’t follow #MeToo news… Well, The Assistant still won’t tell you anything you don’t already know. If you’re looking for a good case of the heebie-jeebies, though? The Assistant will thoroughly heeb your jeeb.
Grade = B+