I don’t know how to start writing about “The Assistant”. I want to compare it to watching a welting bruise raise, to sitting in a hospital waiting room wondering if your arm’s been broken, to the quiet moment of witnessing a trauma and being unable to process it, wondering what its effect will be, what tomorrow will be like with a part of you shattered.
Written and directed by Kitty Green, “The Assistant” is about an administrative assistant to a major film producer. Jane hopes to one day be a producer herself, so she’s first in the office every day, last out of it. She makes the office run smoothly, and the film is studious about showing us every single task she does – a dozen thankless duties before anyone else even gets in.
On one level, the movie’s showing us the thankless, often unnoticed work women are expected to do in countless environments – both work and home. The office wouldn’t function or be presentable without that work, but the nature of that work asks it to be invisible. On another level, that work is also repetitive. It turns your brain off. It can break you down so that when one more piece is added, and one more piece, you just fold it in. The nature of each task becomes meaningless. And when one new task does hold meaning or impact, or harm, it’s easy to begin to make that meaningless, too.
“The Assistant” doesn’t just show us these endless tasks, though. It builds a sense of dread through them. It establishes a tone that I kept trying to place. Its build-up of quiet anticipation is on par with “There Will Be Blood” or “The Shining”, albeit in very different ways and going very different directions. But those had a dramatic desert, and a forested mountaintop. This has an unremarkable office. It gets to that level of catching your breath doing so much more with so much less.
Jane eventually begins to suspect her boss is abusing his position to force women to sleep with him. He may even be grooming one. She has more than enough evidence to justify her suspicions, which she can bring to…whom?
I don’t want to say much more about the plot. What I want to do is call “The Assistant” a masterpiece, a cinematic knife, a moment of shock caught in time. It does as a film what people say Edvard Munch’s The Scream does as a painting.
And at the same time I feel like each of these statements doesn’t describe “The Assistant” in the way it deserves. They ask you to understand a movie by comparison when “The Assistant” establishes its own very different terms.
These comparisons ask you to understand a movie by emotion that is presented with that emotion abandoned in every element except in Julia Garner’s lead performance as Julia: The cinematography boxes her in and makes her small. The editing breaks her down through meaningless task after meaningless task. The lack of music leaves her with no accompaniment or solace or place to hide – the very thing that most asks for and triggers the audience’s empathy has simply disappeared. Every element of this film leaves this smart, tough, capable, caring character to flounder. And then the writing does. And then every other character does. At that rate, to stop floundering, does she just abandon that emotion and empathy, too?
Better than any movie I’ve seen, “The Assistant” presents a moment of shock, and then shows all the elements of a culture – both casual and aggressive – that try to rewrite that person to accept and normalize the trauma that created that shock. This could be taken to more widely discuss this moment in American history, but I don’t want to risk co-opting the more precise theme at hand in “The Assistant” – the systematized abuse of women in our work culture and in our culture as a whole.
“The Assistant” should be taken on its own terms. Its presentation of how a culture normalizes sexual abuse…how it excuses it and encourages those who might object to not just excuse it, but enable it…
This movie is devastating, yet it also doesn’t want you to walk away with even the catharsis of being devastated. When you see a movie, you want even the saddest, most disturbing ones that bury an emotional knife into you to finally twist it, to conclude the emotion. You want it to provide closure. “The Assistant” is about seeing the knife just buried there, unmoving, and then acting as if it’s not there at all, moving forward as if it’s completely normal, as if someone else is strange for noticing it, as if they need to learn how not to.
I like descriptors like “masterpiece” and “monolith” because they can tell you something about the experience of watching a great movie, about its potential place and meaning in the landscape of film. “The Assistant” isn’t either. You can look at any map and see the mountains, the landmarks, the highs and lows. It won’t always show you the logic of a place, though. A topography can only show you so much about how people live.
When you look at a movie and a word like “masterpiece” seems insufficient, what do you call it then?
We don’t call certain images, moments that are captured in the context of some atrocity, we don’t call them masterpieces. We just look at them, and hope they don’t happen again, as they happen every day, unrelentingly, over and over.
I can’t call “The Assistant” a masterpiece. It just is, every day, unrelentingly. It just happens, over and over. I don’t know what to call that. I don’t have a word that does that justice.
Does “The Assistant” Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “The Assistant” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Julia Garner plays the lead, Jane. Kristine Froseth plays Sienna, a new assistant. Clara Wong plays Tess, an actress. Juliana Canfield plays Sasha. Makenzie Leigh plays Ruby, an actress. There are a number of other named women characters with a few lines each who appear briefly.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. Jane and Sienna talk about their histories and where they’re from. Other women briefly discuss schedules and film projects.
That said, most of the conversation centers around Jane’s boss. She’s his assistant, and her work world (and by extension her hope for a career) are built around him. She’s constantly dealing with the fallout of his schedule, desires, anger, and unreliability. Her job is to shield and excuse him to others in countless ways. “The Assistant” is very particular about establishing this, so that when it comes to this one additional way, we can already see she’s been trained in how to excuse his behavior. It’s not a matter of behaving in a way she isn’t used to – it’s a matter of the scale and impact.
Here, too, Jane being surrounded by men in most positions of experience and power plays a key role. This includes the assistants she works alongside, who are happy to benefit from her labor and who return this by “helping” her in ways that subtly shape her behavior in excusing their boss.
The office in which Jane works is a good example of one that features a number of women employees, but none in the positions that Jane might go to in order to hold her boss accountable. Even so, the women in the office often seem to be very aware of her boss’s behavior as well. Many have learned to live with it, joke about it, and interpret it as something they at least tolerate.
“The Assistant” passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test, and it also highlights how systems that maintain and excuse abuses are built to diminish the number of women in key positions of influence being able to talk to each other or help each other. Those out of key positions are simply removed enough from it to justify to themselves looking away.
Jane’s position is already one where the expectations placed on her are those of shaping herself to both the angry demands and subtle persuasions of the men around her. Her job is to apologize to anger. Her job is to be polite to people who threaten her. Her job is to say what the men around her persuade her to say and thank them for being “helpful”.
Jane’s office is a place built to negate and dissolve even the strengths and connections of something as straightforward as the Bechdel-Wallace Test.
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