It is almost impossible to watch Kitty Green's psychological drama The Assistant without thinking of Harvey Weinstein and the lurid details of his trial. Though he's never mentioned by name, echoes of his notoriety and the many allegations against him hover over Green's film both consciously and, one assumes, coincidentally. Even an early shot of the film's protagonist, Jane, riding across a bridge to her Manhattan office in the wee hours of the morning recalls — unintentionally, I assume — the opening logo of Miramax films during its glory years in the 1990s.
Jane, played with depth and quiet frustration by Julia Garner, is an aspiring producer working as an office assistant for an unnamed film company and its demanding boss. Working almost around the clock, she makes copies, takes out the trash, attends to details and spends most of the day in constant motion (and an equally perpetual state of panic) trying to cater to her boss's unpredictable needs. Not limited to the daily operations of the workplace, these include helping avoid his wife's phone calls, talking her through minor domestic problems and picking up the abandoned earrings and other evidence of the boss's indiscretions.
The nameless mogul himself is a spectral, almost omniscient figure, never seen but occasionally overheard through his office door or over the telephone, as when he calls Jane to demand an apology for some minor transgression he has discovered. (Company tradition, she is told by her co-workers, requires her to respond quickly with a contrite e-mail begging forgiveness and thanking him for the privilege of working for him.)
Writer-director Green presents Jane's anguish in a calm, minimalist style. Rather than linger on more sensational elements of the story, she focuses on the drudgery and oppressiveness of Jane's daily routine. Through Garner's sensational performance, The Assistant becomes less a timely story of abusive power than a portrait of the emotional and spiritual damage it causes, a Kafkaesque nightmare brought up to date with the banalities of the modern workplace.
The details of the business are presented obliquely. We see stacks of headshots piled on Jane's desk, some of them matching the faces of the young women who parade through the mogul's door. We see guests come and go with no clear idea of why they're there, usually unable to actually meet the boss face to face. There's an almost comical sense of repetition and futility, tempered only by Jane's gnawing anxiety and increasing desperation.
Her anxiety reaches its tipping point with the introduction of the boss's newest interest, a twenty-year-old Idaho waitress whose chance encounter with the mogul brings her to New York, where she is housed in a luxury hotel and added to the office staff with no apparent abilities or responsibilities.
Finally driven to outrage, Jane, in the film's longest scene, visits the human resources office to express her concerns; the unctuous HR executive patronizingly dismisses — and confirms — her complaint with a dark punchline worthy of The Trial: Jane doesn't need to worry about the boss, he explains. She's "not his type."
The Assistant is a muted, restrained work, but quietly seething. The bleakest look at the dark side of white-collar work since artist Cindy Sherman's rarely seen Office Killer (another shot of inadvertent Miramax synchronicity: The 1997 film was released through its Dimension subsidiary), Green's deceptively low-keyed approach turns the prickly subjects of office politics and power into a potent exploration of psychological despair.