You hear him. You feel his presence in the next room. His aides, of which you are one, are ever on alert to satisfy his ever-changing demands. You want to escape his wrath. But you never see him. He’s the elephant in the building, receiving visitors, including attractive young women. We all know who he is and are certain of what he’s up to. But he’s the king and you’re an instantly replaceable flunky.
Such is the premise of The Assistant, a novel, low-key, insider-ish glance at what it was like, not too long ago, to work for a certain outsize Hollywood mogul whose headquarters were a continent away in downtown New York City. He looms over all but no one dares speak his name.
On the basis of her earlier documentaries, which include Ukraine Is Not a Brothel and Casting JonBenet two years ago, Australian writer-director Kitty Green clearly seems drawn to controversial material rooted in aspects of sexual exploitation. In her modestly scaled dramatic feature debut, she has taken a restrained approach to the inflammatory, keeping the temperature at a low simmer and insinuating rather than showing what’s going on in the boss’s office and in the luxury hotels he books for certain select female candidates for his attention.
As if writing for a concentrated, minimalistic theater piece, Green basically presents a day in the life of an assistant to the unseen mogul. Jane (Julia Garner) is the first to arrive at the modestly sized Soho office space; it’s still dark outside, and she goes about the Jeanne Dielman-like daily chores of preparing the coffee, lining up the water bottles just so and, tellingly, scrubbing the couch, the first hint that something untoward might have gone on the day before in the office.
You get the feeling she has made an effort to downplay her looks, pulling her hair back primly and wearing a modest outfit. She’s also extremely reserved with her largely male office colleagues, who, for their part, disregard her, either out of a sense of superiority or the feeling that she could be there one day and gone the next, or probably both.
In all events, Jane, who has been on the job for just over a month, tries to keep her head down to avoid unwanted attention. Mostly, the film is devoted to detailing what one might call the ever-urgent monotony of life in the office; the boss is flying to L.A. at 11:00 tonight out of Teterboro, and there will be two additional passengers; confirm the reservation at the Peninsula; “The Wife” is calling; a beautiful blonde has just arrived for a meeting.
Later in the day, Jane finds a way to return a gold bracelet to an Asian woman who was recently in the boss’s office, and the quiet, unspoken indignities only accelerate from there; the young male assistants who constitute the vast majority of the office staff are short with and condescending toward Jane, whom they perhaps assume won’t be there for too long, and everyone seems to be on tenterhooks, also no doubt for good reason.
Green is very good at sustaining the sense of low-boil fear and tension that prevails among the whole staff, as well as pinpointing the pressure everyone feels to always deliver and not to attract attention by screwing up. Also very clear is how the few women in the office, and specifically Jane, hope to survive by not drawing the slightest adverse attention.
However, it’s to the film’s ultimate detriment that Jane remains such a quiet, withdrawn, deliberately attention-avoiding figure. So determined to remain essentially invisible is she that she eventually seems out of place in such a dynamic, if combustible, environment. Nothing about her seems exceptional, to the point that one wonders why she chose to work in this rarefied realm. Jane just wants to keep her head down and escape unwanted scrutiny. As a result, the central character never develops in an interesting way. Well before the wrap-up of this brief tale, her cultivated recessiveness becomes tiresome and, in these particular circumstances, a bit dull.
Up to this point, however, the film maintains an intriguing and well-managed tension, and its exacting evocation of a very particular time and place in very recent film industry history will stir the interest of industry members and students of it. A more general public, however, will likely find Green’s approach dry and too restrained.
Therefore, given the fireworks that have replaced the look-the-other-way attitude that prevailed for so long on the topic of this piece, The Assistant stands as an insightful, if after-the-fact look at long-tolerated behavior. It’s a reminder of how things were until very, very recently.
Production companies: 331 Productions, Cinereach, Forensic Films, Symbolic Exchange, Level Forward
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Madfadyen, Mackenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Julia Canfield, Alexander Chapin, Bregje Heinen
Director-screenwriter: Kitty Green
Producers: Kitty Green, Scott Macaulay, James Schamus, P. Jennifer O’Grady
Executive producers: John Howard, Avy Eschenasy, Abigail E. Disney, The Level Forward Team
Director of photography: Michael Latham
Production designer: Fletcher Chancey
Costume designer: Rachel Dainer-Best
Editor: Kitty Green
Venue: Telluride Film Festival