The Assistant isn’t a showy movie. Directed by Kitty Green (Casting JonBenét) , it moves slowly and deliberately, taking us through the soul-crushing minutiae of assistant-work: Get to the office while it’s still dark; turn on the fluorescent lights; make coffee; order sandwiches; unpack water bottles; answer the phones; alter the boss’ schedule. But running alongside that dull, doldrums routine is an undercurrent of crackling tension — something is not right here. You can hear it in the sniggers of the two young men with whom protagonist and titular assistant Jane (Julia Garner), shares an office. You can feel it in the way everyone wilts away from the boss’ main office when the door is shut, and muffled women’s voices can be heard within. And you can see it, explicitly, in the clip below.
Suspicious about the behavior she’s seen around the office, Jane has sought help from the head of HR, played by Matthew Macfadyen. It’s a scene that perfectly exposes why sexual harassment is so hard to report: A man in charge, whose job is supposed to be to help smooth the process, gaslights a young woman into questioning her own judgement. Macfadyen, best-known for his role as Tom Wambsgams on HBO’s Succession, capitalizes on the audience’s goodwill and affection — he draws us in, just like Jane, with smiles and encouragement that lead to very thinly veiled threats.
“What’s your plan?” he asks Jane. “Where do you want to be in five to ten years?”
“A producer,” she says. “I want to produce.”
“You do? That’s excellent,” he replies. “We could use more women producers. It’s a tough job, but I can see you’ve got what it takes.”
And then the act drops. “So, why are you in here trying to throw it all away over this bullshit?”
Garner’s reaction here is powerful. She doesn’t respond; rather, the camera remains unflinchingly turned towards her as we see her face drain with dismay and discomfort. There will be no help here. In fact, she may have done her career irreparable harm.
Green’s film not-so-subtly hints that the unnamed, unseen boss at the center of the narrative could be disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, who is currently on trial for rape in New York City. But by keeping him anonymous, she widens her statement about the state of harassment in the workplace — Jane could be anyone, in any office. Jane could be you.