When a person becomes caught in an abusive system’s machinery, how does one make their unbearable burden of staying silent seen and felt by audiences? Context is important, as viewers rely on historical accounts and personal experiences of injustice to relate to the situation.
The Assistant portrays such a punishing environment that one feels helplessly trapped. However, the oppression does not immediately materialize in the form of the walls of a prison cell or a tyrannical regime. Instead, we follow Jane, a renowned film executive’s young assistant, to a generic office space in the Meatpacking district of downtown Manhattan. Well, we ask ourselves, how bad could this be?
Shot and released after the name “Harvey Weinstein” became synonymous with “predatory monster” (although the film does not explicitly link the executive’s identity to Weinstein), the film coolly takes a look at the period that preceded the flood of #MeToo allegations. Jane moves swiftly and gracefully as she carries out menial tasks such as filling the water pitcher for meetings, cleaning off bread crumbs from the conference table, and organizing the boss’s medication in his desk drawer. Her day breaks into fragments of cleaning, arranging, and smoothing out details of unpleasantness, so much so that we feel that Jane’s main role at the job is to stay invisible and unimportant. Only the film’s camera follows her consistently and, in a way, gives her the attention and appreciation that is absent from her work environment. The camera’s relentless observation also provides the viewers a chance to peer through Jane’s unperturbed veneer.
Jane’s outward composure seems to be the necessary survival mechanism in a sea of coworkers’ indifference. Only by staring closely at her can we see her eyelids twitching slightly after the boss hurls harsh words at her. As the film progresses, Jane expands to become a person who stands taller than her often diminishing job. She calmly assesses the situation and doesn’t jump to conclusions. Furthermore, her ambition doesn’t impede her from practicing kindness and sympathy: in a turn of events, she senses that something is wrong and decides to seek advice from the HR office, without realizing that she steps out of the line by doing so. The odds are stacked against her because everyone is subsumed by the toxic work culture, and Jane is an anomaly—curious, observant, and reluctant to play by finance bro rules. Muffled conversations behind closed doors permeate throughout the scenes, and so does the boss’s haunting presence. To emphasize this ghostly quality, director Kitty Green uses an ingenious narrative and visual device that closely resembles George Cukor’s 1939 dramatic comedy The Women, albeit with a significantly drearier message. In The Assistant, the boss’s presence is more felt than seen. Without directly mentioning Weinstein, we sense the danger of abusive figures lurking everywhere and contaminating all surfaces they touch.
Jane’s day quickly spirals from dreary to devastating. The thought that this is her daily reality makes me shudder. When you think the film charts the path to the early victory in the #MeToo movement, think again. The truth is not yet out of the dark, and it’s easy to be stuck in the limbo of waiting.