To watch this film while Harvey Weinstein is on trial for rape is a gut punch. Australian writer-director Kitty Green’s minimalist, keenly observed study of a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner) who works for a movie mogul in downtown New York is clearly based on Weinstein. But even more illuminating is its depiction of an exploitative, nearly cult-like, soul-crushing work culture that enables an abusive predator.
Jane is young recent college grad, ambitious and hard working. She arrives at the Soho office building before dawn and does all sorts of mundane tasks from making coffee and sorting mail to cleaning a soiled couch to fetching sandwiches. We never see her boss but we hear him, yelling behind a closed door or screaming over the phone at Jane. Her two more seasoned male colleagues (John Orsini and Noah Robbins) casually urge her to send an apologetic email, even providing the solicitous wording. No one is fazed by the elephant in the room. Rather than being a dynamic part of “the industry,” this office is dehumanizing and filled with a palpable climate of icy terror. Men in suits come and go with barely a glance at Jane and the unseen boss hovers over everything with chilly control. His email response to Jane’s apology is, “I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great.” It makes The Devil Wears Prada, with its old-fashioned workplace drama, the force of nature at its center and the lively employee kvetching, look like an exciting place to work.
Jane’s slow burn intensifies when she’s dispatched to take a pretty new assistant with no experience, fresh off the plane from Boise, to the swank Mark hotel. Routine office jokes about the young woman’s purpose finally compel Jane to visit HR where she is told with smarmy condescension to shut up or risk her career aspirations as a film producer. Besides, the increasingly hostile executive tells her, “You’re not his type.” The compact scene is chilling because of its restraint. It’s business as usual; it takes a team to allow a monster to thrive.
The Assistant is a taut, searing portrait of the toxic Weinstein work culture. But its strength is that it could be any exploitative workplace and Jane could be any smart, sincere, ambitious young woman whose eyes are opened to the sinister, entrenched power dynamic of sexual abuse and its requisite silence to which she has, unwittingly, been complicit.