The Assistant, directed by Kitty Green, is an affecting look into the relentless dehumanizing elements of a toxic workplace. Even though no overarching conflict is present, Green has crafted a glimpse into a version of hell where the ability to deal with verbal abuse, emotional manipulation, and the suppression of one’s own morals might eventually lead to a dream career. With a quietly poignant performance by Julia Garner, precise and gutting sound design, and fearless direction, The Assistant is a harrowing descent into a world that seems outrageous yet we know was (and likely still is) commonplace.
Jane (Julia Garner) works as an assistant for an important entertainment producer. She faces the usual office tasks: making coffee, printing headshots, organizing travel arrangements. Jane also deals with tasks that are a little less common in an office: taking calls from the producer’s exasperated wife, throwing away her boss’s discarded medical syringes, writing letters of apology to her boss for the smallest of missteps. When Jane becomes concerned that her boss’s worrisome actions may have gone too far and put her own job in jeopardy, she must decide if she should speak out or if she should continue to ignore what she knows isn’t right.
The Assistant might initially appear as a standard drama, but Kitty Green has created a story that often resembles a “real-world” horror film. There seem to be very few windows in the office, giving most shots a grim and artificial appearance. We never know what time of the day it is unless Jane briefly steps outside. All of The Assistant takes place in one day, but the editing gives Jane’s day almost infinite length. The chilling sound design presents Jane’s office as something of a dungeon. Normal office sounds, such as fluorescent lights flickering to life or a printer being switched on induce a level of discomfort that comes off as both familiar and nightmarish at the same time. While the abuses that Jane must contend with are never extreme, they are small and constant, like a death by a thousand cuts. Watching The Assistant is a cold and quietly devastating experience.
Julia Garner’s performance is breathtaking and will no doubt be one of the best we see this year. With her pale skin and quiet voice, Garner’s Jane seems almost translucent. We see in her eyes the toll this job is taking on her. It is a calculated and reserved achievement underscored by deep loneliness. In one disconcerting scene, Garner is able to distill all of Jane’s frustration, confusion, and sadness into the tiniest whimper and a single sniffle. She immediately pushes past it and goes back to her daily tasks. She delivers a masterclass in conveying faint hopelessness, and it is as brave a performance as we are likely to see anytime soon.
There is something so utterly heartbreaking about the small mistreatments Jane must suffer through during the relatively short runtime of The Assistant. When the film ends, you can almost feel the melancholy in your bones. You walk away so much more moved than if The Assistant had been full of large-scale abuses or clear-cut moments of grievous mistreatment. Many will be frustrated and confused when the credits start. They will complain that “nothing happened” during the film, failing to see the realistic and important message that the film presents. Jane’s work life isn’t out of the ordinary. It is normal and that is what is so especially crushing. Kitty Green has created a film that needed to be made for decades.