Perhaps this is simply entry-level requirements in a century-old industry, and the grind will give way to greater accomplishment. That possibility is dangled in front of her by her boss and others in the office, but it becomes clear the kind of complicity such climbing will require. If she plays maid and den mother to the demanding and childish men who purport to be her colleagues, perhaps she’ll become an assistant producer, at which point her main task will be procurement of new bodies to send into her boss’ lair, represented by stacks of head shots. Maybe the direct complicity ends at the next step after that, but how much can one put up with? There’s lip service paid to a more gender-equitable industry and how she can help make that happen, but how earth-shaking would the women who rise up in this world really be? Wouldn’t they just recapitulate this hazing onto the next generation, to say nothing of the cruel and predatory nature of this specific producer?
Green is bludgeoning the viewer with Jane’s passive tolerance for all this, and if that’s all The Assistant was, it wouldn’t be much more than an exercise in misery porn. Eventually, she does do what she believes to be the right thing and seeks out that upholder of behavioral norms and ethics, the Human Resources department. In a long and claustrophobic back-and-forth between Jane and Wilcock (Matthew McFadyen), Green composes and captures a stunning depiction of the extensive layers of insulation that predators construct for themselves. In fact, Wilcock doesn’t represent the interests or the safety of the employees of the company, but the boss’. He shreds Jane’s concerns through a combination of interrogation and condescension and, to protect himself, he offers to write up her complaint anyway while adding how detrimental that will be to her and inconsequential it will be for her boss. The end result is to give the exact dimensions of the cage that Jane has found herself in, and how many people would gladly make sure she stays locked inside it.
While The Assistant isn’t explicitly about Harvey Weinstein, it’s easy to imagine Green pulling details from the several books written about his conduct, exposure, and trial. The world of the film is too gray to allow for potted plants, but specific reenactments are unnecessary if Green is more desirous of communicating what it would be like to work for someone like him. Garner’s hair is styled in such a way that it looks a quarter turn too tight, and that same feeling is transmuted into the viewer. Jane’s desk is set up so her back is to her boss’ door, and the low-grade horror that he might come out of it at any moment is intolerable for the film’s 87 minute runtime, let alone a full 14-hour workday. The Assistant isn’t a fun watch or even a film that held full attention during its brief length, but it is one that has lingered in the time since watching it. The world has no doubt moved on to several new front-page issues, and Green’s film feels like a period on the end of this particular sentence. That sentence could be the final one, where workplace practices root out harassment and exploitation by the powerful, or, more likely, it will merely be back-burnered until another spasm of high-profile exposures arise once everyone forgets about MeToo and gets comfortable in their institutionalized misogyny again. B