The Assistant review – #MeToo drama exposes the culture of silence around abuse

Writer-director Kitty Green expertly crafts a culture of fear that permeates every inch of the frame in The Assistant and holds up a damning mirror to the film industry in this impressive and incendiary feature.

The film follows one day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), an assistant to a powerful film mogul. As she goes about her daily routine, it becomes increasingly apparent to her, and the audience, that an insidious level of abuse is emanating from the Boss’s office. Will she have the strength and resolve to take a stand? And if she does, will anyone listen?

© Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street

The film may be classified as a drama, but there are times when it feels more akin to a horror, the horror of the mundane. A dropped earring here, an nondescript dry cleaning bill there. Items that normally would mean nothing but in this context bring traces of bile to the back of the throat. Green understands that the true terror lies in the unsaid and unseen. An audience can create something more horrifying in their mind than anything that could be shown to them on screen.

Tonally and aesthetically, it is the polar opposite of Bombshell or The Devil Wears Pradaor even 1994’s Swimming With Sharks, which also featured a new assistant being mentally and emotionally tortured by his sadistic boss. Where that film was loud and proud in showcasing its verbal abuse, The Assistant is a quieter, more intimate character study. Garner is impressive as the young woman swimming against an engulfing tide of mistreatment. Rebuffed by her fellow employees, in particular Matthew McFadyen‘s ice-cold HR manager, she must decide whether to duck and cover or make her escape, like prey escaping predator.

The predator in question is simply called “Boss” and is never seen on camera. Yet his presence and shadow loom large, whether he be at a meeting, screening room or hotel suite.

© Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street

While this is a piece of narrative fiction, parallels between The Assistant and the recent allegations and court cases are inescapable. Kitty Green previously worked as a documentarian, and this comes through in her most recent feature. Her speaking to women in the industry about their experiences has provided the film with great authenticity. It is this sense of realism that provides the film its biggest crux. The audience expect a certain outcome, so when events look to take a different course, it’s frustrating. It will make you angry.

Yet that is exactly the point which the film is trying to make. You are meant to be upset by what is happening. What is that age-old quote again? “All it takes for evil to thrive is for good men to do nothing”. The film will certainly cause plenty of debate amongst audiences. Who is to blame? The ones who commit the crime or the ones who stand by and let it happen?

The Assistant is available on VOD now.