Review by Sean Boelman
The narrative debut of writer-director Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet), The Assistant is a new drama set in the same world of corporate favoritism that created the monster that was the Weinstein scandal. With a simple but powerful approach, Green crafts a thoughtful examination of workplace toxicity.
The film follows an assistant to a powerful executive as she goes about her daily routine, discovering the sinister happenings and abuse that quietly happen behind-the-scenes. Ultimately, the thing that stands out most about this movie is that Green takes such a brutally realistic and honest approach.
While many would like to think that every case of workplace abuse gets as much publicity as the Weinstein scandal, it is the sad truth that, more often than not, something much more quiet happens as is depicted in this film. By focusing on the mundane tasks of the protagonist’s job and then showing how they are thrown off, the movie emphasizes the emotion of the situation.
That said, this may also prove to be challenging for mainstream audiences. Similarly to last year’s The Souvenir, this is a meditative character piece that is more interested in exploring its themes than providing cinematic conflict. Although there are a few scenes that are quite tense thanks to excellent dialogue, the more subdued moments of terror throughout are those that are most effective.
Part of what makes the film so heartbreaking is that Green does an excellent job of developing the protagonist. One of the movie’s main statements is that this could happen to anyone, and so the character is written in a way to be as believable and relatable as possible. Even though a few exposition dumps are used to provide necessary context to the characterization, a majority of the film’s emotion comes from connecting with the character due to her actions.
Because of the movie’s almost repetitive nature, it is highly dependent on the talent of the actors for the subtle emotion to be conveyed. Julia Garner (Ozark) does an amazing job of bringing the character to life, infusing the film with a ton of nuance thanks to her detailed mannerisms and fabulous delivery. Matthew Macfadyen (Succession) is the standout in the supporting cast as the human resources pencil pusher in whose office the climax occurs.
On a technical level, the movie may seem simple on the surface, and for the most part, that is because it is. However, Green’s almost clinical approach to the execution lends it a necessary feeling of coldness that will almost certainly create discomfort within the viewer. Some may mistake this discomfort for boredom when in actuality it is a very deliberate emotion created by Green’s style.
While The Assistant may not be the most exciting, nor even the most dramatic portrayal of the work environment, it is undoubtedly one of the most effective. With the Weinstein trial having just went into deliberations, this film and its themes remain just as important as they were when the scandal first broke over two years ago.
The Assistant is now playing in theaters.