“The Assistant” is a stealth bomb of a movie: It barely makes a noise but it leaves a crater in your heart.
The genesis of the film, which has been written and directed by Kitty Green, may come from the same thought I and perhaps you had when the crimes of Harvey Weinstein came tumbling out a few years ago. To wit: What about the people who worked for him? What about the women who worked for him? Were they enablers? Complicit? Cowed into silence? I had friends who were reporting on the Weinstein story back in the 1990s, for a movie magazine that no longer exists, and even though that story was ultimately scuttled, people knew. People knew.
So what walls do you build around yourself to tell yourself you don’t know? That is the premise of “The Assistant.”
We never see the predatory boss in the movie, and he’s never named; he’s Weinstein and he’s the larger problem at the same time. And the assistant of the title isn’t a longtime employee but a newbie, plain Jane (Julia Garner), who has a college degree that got her in the door and onto the bottom rung of a nameless independent film company in a trendy Manhattan neighborhood.
Jane lives out in the boroughs somewhere and wakes up when it’s still dark; she makes the coffee and fields the phone calls and brings in the movie stars and arranges the appointments. When she screws up, we hear buzzsaw obscenities from the inner office on her phone and watch her type the apology e-mail whose phrases are catechism, overseen by two helpful male assistants (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) who’ve been here before.
These humiliations are expected, quotidian — the accepted price Jane feels she has to pay for a career in the business. (The movie doesn’t bother to say so, but you know she has a screenplay in a desk somewhere, or a college film uploaded to Vimeo that no one has seen.) More troublesome are the lunch dates she has to arrange for the boss while stonewalling his angry wife. The earring on the office carpet retrieved by a mortified young actress (Clara Wong). The teenage waitress (Kristine Froseth) who the boss met in Idaho and who has been flown to New York and installed in a luxury hotel where she awaits a “job interview.” What does Jane owe to any of these women? Whose side is she on, anyway?
This is Green’s third feature and first non-documentary; her last film, “Casting JonBenet” (2017), found a way under the skin of the JonBenet Ramsay murder by interviewing those involved in the case for a fictional film that was never intended to be made. In “The Assistant,” Green is microscopically attuned to the moral choices Jane faces every second of her day, to her larger moral choice at the end of the day, and to the complicity of everyone around her — the exhausted women, the browbeaten or admiring men, the whole ruinous food chain.
The style is minimalist to a fault, spare and exacting. We simply watch Jane from morning to night and glean the situation through implication — what everyone’s not saying. Garner’s performance is a model of nervous control, Jane keeping her head down and doing her best to remain professional. Inside, her heart is beating wilder and faster, but not more angrily — not yet. She’s still too scared.
It comes to a head not with the boss himself, because of course it wouldn’t. He pays factotums to deal with mouselings like Jane. Instead, she finds herself in an office with the head of Human Resources, played by Matthew Macfadyen with much of the oiliness but none of the idiocy he brings to his role of the boob son-in-law on HBO’s “Succession.”
The scene is bureaucratic, agonizing, and brilliant. Without ever raising his voice, the HR guy listens to Jane’s fears about the girl from Idaho — she’s there, right now, in the hotel room; something bad is going to happen — and proceeds to grind her down with all the tools in his kit. Doubt and embarrassment, predictions that she’ll never work again, anywhere. Hints that she’s jealous or over-imaginative. Assurances that Jane herself is safe because ”you’re not his type.”
That HR guy — he’s the tip of the spear and also the spear itself. He’s why it took decades for Harvey Weinstein to face his accusers in court. (The producer continues to maintain his consensual innocence.) The lessons this movie imparts spread like a toxic spill; “The Assistant” is a meticulous accounting of a young woman’s spirit being crushed not by one man’s sexual assaults but by a system that protects and rewards him. As the film draws to a close, it’s still not clear whether Jane is angry. But Green is, and we are, and the screen feels ready to burst into flames.
Written and directed by Kitty Green. Starring Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 85 minutes. R (some language)