Tuesday 7 July 2020

The Assistant

The pivotal scene of Kitty Green’s The Assistant comes towards the end of the film, when Julia Garner’s Jane, after having spent most of the film quietly observing what is happening around her, hesitantly approaches the HR department for the film studio she works for. She is sent into Wilcock’s (Matthew Macfadyen) office when he is still on the phone – and, to make the boundaries of power and class clear to her, he raises a finger to keep her waiting. He finishes his phone call. She awkwardly sits down, not thinking to take off her bulky winter jacket that must provide some kind of security in this unknown situation. Of course, Wilcock more demands than suggests that she take it off. 

The Assistant is all about those small moments in which uneven power relationships become obvious. When Jane enters elevators, nobody acknowledges her. In her office of two male co-workers, she is the one asked to take the phone calls from the wife, she does the dishes, she cleans up long after everyone has left, after the boys discuss what bar to have their drinks at, without ever asking her to come along. In one scene, Jane has just finished doing the office dishes, only for two other women to come into the small kitchen and leave more dishes on the bench, as if it were her job to clean up after them, too. There are no boundaries to her duties, and no delineation between her work and her life - when we do follow her outside the confines of the office, it's just to see her wolf down a late dinner at a nearby diner, as if the outside world had shrunk to nothing but this precious job. 

The brilliance of this film is that all of these short segments tie in with the greater theme here, creating a tableau that explains how the unnamed boss – only seen swishing past, only heard through doors – could create an environment in which young women are exploited. Jane works her way up to the conversation with HR when she, much like the viewer here, has been feeling uneasy and unsettled about everything here for too long to remain quiet. There are folders of women that her boss appears to order from like a menu, there are people joking openly about past occurrences that sound like they must have been horror stories for the women involved, and then there’s the final straw. Jane accompanies a young women from the airport to the hotel and finds out that her boss met her once in Iowa, and has now flown her out to become an assistant. Later that day, he does not show up for a meeting, and as if this provided ample explanation, Jane is asked where she took the other woman, to help track him down. She puts the pieces together and is horrified, even though Garner throughout the film plays those moments quietly, especially because Jane has no outlets to voice any of her conclusions. Once she does, to Wilcock, she learns quickly that the HR department, like all other departments there, solely exist to protect the man she has correctly identified as a predator, and in the process of trying to voice the disparate things that are wrong, to find words that describe the feeling of unease that permeates the whole film, she just makes herself vulnerable to Wilcock’s ridicule and spite. He blames her for coming forward, he explains her concerns away with jealousy, he threatens her career, or promises one, if she remains quiet. 

Garner is a revelation, straying far from her equally potent stand-out character in Ozark (Ruth Langmore is never quiet), but fittingly, Ozark is also a portrayal about moral decline under capitalism and what happens to individuals and families when the pursuit of profits justifies everything. It never fully embraces being a satire of the American dream, maybe because there is a certain tone that Breaking Bad has set for this kind of story, that is now inescapable. The film is like a chamber play – limited sets, limited characters, intense focus on small gestures, a film that trusts Julia Garner to convey her journey through the thicket of the studio solely through her restrained expressions. 

The Assistant is a precise portrayal of a poisoned business culture. It is so effective because it is barely specific to film – screenplays and actors are mentioned (and Patrick Wilson enters and exits an elevator), but this is still a story that could be universal, if only for the fact that in dire economic circumstances, unequal power relations easily lead to exploitation at best, and abuse at its worst, when there are no functioning institutions to prevent either. I recently finished reading K.M. Szpara’s Docile, and the novel’s tagline seems appropriate here: “there is no consent under capitalism”. As Wilcock tells her: If she refuses to be a willing cog in the machine, there are thousands of other young women with better qualifications lined up for the studio to use up. From Jane’s perspective, escalating her concerns to HR is her last option, but it is a terrible one because everyone within the company and everyone tasked with keeping its employees safe is culpable and contributes to the environment that enables the abuse. It would not occur to her to talk honestly to her parents, who are proud of her success in a difficult industry to break into, and far away. The moment of catharsis, that  first article to gain traction, the unlikely coincidence of a moment in time in which tearing down Harvey Weinstein became feasible, doesn’t happen here. 

2020, directed by Kitty Green, starring Julia Garner.

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