The Abuse of Power as Seen Through the Eyes of ‘The Assistant’

The Assistant

It’s hard to label Kitty Green’s latest movie, The Assistant. It’s an important movie, but not very fun to watch. It’s a relatively short movie, yet feels long. It’s dramatic, but there isn’t a lot of dialogue.

Some people have called this movie a thriller, but it has a slow burn ultimately doesn’t go anywhere. Others have called it a film that hates men and while it does feature a few terrible men, the women in this office setting don’t come off a whole lot better. Some have labeled The Assistant a horror movie, and that just might be the best description even if it isn’t exactly a horror movie in the traditional sense.

Jane (Julia Garner) is a recent college graduate who dreams of becoming a film producer. After recently landing a job as a junior assistant to a movie mogul, she seems to be heading in the right direction. Her parents are both very proud of her. She knows that it isn’t going to be easy and she is willing to put in the hard work.

The movie begin in the wee hours of the morning where after catching a Uber to her office in Downtown Somewhere, Jane begins her day of turning on the lights, making coffee, changing the paper in the copy machine, ordering lunch, arranging travel, taking phone messages… you get the idea. Slowly her two male co-workers drag themselves inside of the cramped office barely uttering a “Good morning” to her. Jane doesn’t look hurt. She goes through this same routine every day. One of them asks her how her weekend was and she says, “I was here.” For a business that is known for creating movie magic, it is one depressing place. From the people to the coffee, everything is drab here. She is living the dream.

Jane (Julia Garner) in The Assistant. (Bleeker Street)

Jane works for an unseen boss at a fictional entertainment company. His face is never shown (partially because he spends the majority of his time out of the office) but his presence is felt. All three employees have to make excuses about his whereabouts to callers including his erratic wife who demands to know where her husband is.

Green, who wrote the script and directed The Assistant, slowly lead the viewer on with little breadcrumbs of information leaving the viewer to guess what is going on. The phone rings, Jane answers it and all we hear is her side of the conversation. She types something on your computer and we have to guess what it is and to whom she is writing. How much of this do we need to keep track of?

Throughout the day, Jane comes in contact with many different women. None of them respect her any more than the men do. Is it because she’s young, new on the job or female? As her day goes on, Jane increasingly become uncomfortable about some of the things she is seeing and hearing around the office involving the new assistant hired with little experience and put up at a fancy hotel. When she brings these matters up to the HR department, it doesn’t take long before she regrets doing so.

With the “me too” movement not fully in our rear-view mirror, this film is a fictional tale that was built from the very real stories from abusive workplaces and you find yourself asking, “What would I do in this situation?”

Unlike most movies, The Assistant doesn’t play by the rules. There is very little dialogue, many characters come and go without any explanation about who they are or how they fit in with the story. In a very real sense, we are pulled into the story working alongside Jane wondering what is going on. There is a steady buildup of tension as the film goes on. Though the story is slow, it held my attention the whole time.

This is very good movie with very clear message, but because it is so different, many will walk away disappointed. It feels like it should be a thriller, but nothing really thrilling ever happens. Before you know it, the day ends and the film’s credits go up. You find yourself asking, “That’s it?” You leave the theater with a feeling of frustration and disappointment, much like Jane feels. The only thing is, you don’t have to live through the experience again, but Jane will tomorrow morning.

Despite the Harvey Wienstein-ish overtones to this story, this movie is more about the abuse of power than anything else. And because of that, more people will be able to relate to this movie than they would care to admit. I would like to think that this sort of thing only happens “in the secular world” but if recent history has told us anything, abuse can happen within the four walls of a church as well as a business.

I think parents of teens should consider taking their kids to this movie and then discussing what they saw over a burger and fries. We dads need to take the time to show our boys how to treat women and teach our daughters how to stand up for ourselves. As adults, we need to stand up against what we know is wrong in the workplace despite the consequences. If we don’t, this same depressing situation will continue on.

I find it interesting that The Assistant has been “certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes with a healthy 88% positive rating from the critics, but a miserable 22% from the audience score. Not everyone is going to appreciate this film.

While I contend that it is very well made, there isn’t much of a story here. People are willing to sit through a slow film is there is a payoff of some kind in the end, but that doesn’t happen. Even worse, I know there will be plenty of people who can relate a little too well with this movie.  Most of us go to the movies to find an escape from our troubles, not relive them.

Main Image: Bleeker Street

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