Review: The Assistant (2020) – Side Effects Include Nausea

Julia Garner in The Assistant

When your mind thinks of the phrase ‘it takes a village’, it always brings up this notion of community, the idea that we are stronger together than we are apart. To truly affect positive change, it takes everyone. People never think of the nefarious when contemplating the power of a group of people. Take The Assistant, Kitty Green’s allusion to the Weinstein story and the prevalent sexual misconduct that was buried by so many of the Hollywood elite. Here the village in question isn’t seeking change, they are bowing to power, helping bury the secrets to keep the machine working and the money rolling in.

Green’s film however in less interested in the how of this cycle of abuse but the why of peoples silence, their complacency to something they know deep down to be wrong. Following newly hired Jane (Julia Garner) through a day in her world of constant pressures, working as the assistant to a never seen but constantly felt movie executive, Jane is the bottom rung of an industry where gossip and scandal spreads as easy as a rash. When she begins to notice a pattern of suspect behaviour at the core of this new, golden opportunity she finds herself caught between her morality, her aspirations and the many whispering voices that surround her.

Despite not being a full blown conspiracy thriller, Green’s film feeds off of Jane’s paranoia but also the empty space that silence brings about. Accompanied by some impressive set design that manages to really encapsulate the cold, modern idea of the functional but uninviting office space. Full of empty corridors, glass everywhere and oftentimes open workspaces shared by many, Jane and by extension the audience must deal with the constant eyes of her coworkers. Delivering you into a fractious head space where anyone is out to climb over you on the way to the top, Green differentiates Jane by playing to her naive notion of how the world works. The fact that over the course of the day she slowly learns the stomach turning truth means that this idea of enemies around every corner never lets up.

Full of fake platitudes and even faker people, Green (who also wrote the minimal but cutting script) wants her audience to empathise and judge Jane in equal measures. Despite being the only truly honest character in a den of liars, Garner’s constantly shifting performance, one of feigned pleasantries and blistering percipience, ensures that The Assistant, despite its nauseating story and tone, is never anything less than captivating. Despite being merely a snapshot, a day in the life storytelling, Green has crafted something special and relevant.

Despite an underwhelming opening of silent office minutiae which is informative but never really vital, constantly alluding but never asserting itself means that a film that runs a paltry 87 minutes spends over a third putting up the curtains, and touching up the surroundings ready for the main event. Watching Jane carry out mundane tasks like printing headshots, although informative (they are all women) doesn’t pack the same punch as later moments where Jane is forced to share a car ride with the latest in what is presumably a long line of wannabe ‘assistants’, forcing her to confront what she knows to be going on but is slowly hardening against. However the silent office work unknowingly establishes a poisonous atmosphere, an insidious power that infects Jane’s decisions.

It all culminates in a scene too great (although that might be the wrong word) to ruin, a reveal too horrifying to even describe. A monment that not only plays to the notion of the harmful nature of power and the male gaze but it also dives into the muck of debating how even women in the industry tolerated such wide-spread corruption. Be it a mixture of ambition or fear, it all bubbles to the surface in a moment of unabashed misery.

Minimalist and cleverly constructed with some of the finest set design in recent history, The Assistant is timely yet delicate in its subject matter but constantly raising unspoken and painful truths, the kind of notions that need addressing despite our persistent avoidance. With a lingering feeling of secret guilt hanging over Jane’s story and all involved, this is strongly unpleasant viewing but it might just be 2020’s most essential watch.

TSR

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