The Assistant: a powerful and laconic #MeToo drama

It is an unembellished look at the toxic office politics of a major filmmaking company with an award-worthy performance by Julia Garner

Julia Garner in The Assistant (2019) IMDb

You know that chilling feeling of breathlessness you get as you watch the protagonist of a well-made horror flick go down to a dark basement?

You might not be able to see it yet, its presence implied only by shadows, but you know something evil is lurking in the darkness beyond, ready to strike.

Kitty Green's The Assistant is 87 minutes of that sensation, except you never get to see the predator. But, in this story, you do not need to – you are already well aware of who it is and what he is capable of.

The Assistant gives viewers a glimpse of life working for a powerful media mogul. An unembellished and tense representation of the toxic office politics of a major filmmaking company, it is a work of allusions, clues and suggestions drawing parallels with the sexual harassment carried out by Harvey Weinstein.

The Assistant excels not only in the situations it chooses to portray, but in what is left out. The soundtrack is a perfect example of this – there isn't one.

The film is bracketed by a few ambling piano notes at the beginning and end. Otherwise, there is not a single musical note. Ringing phones, beeping scanners, furiously clicked keyboards and garbled conversations within cubicles act as its only backdrop, heightening the tense atmosphere all the more.

Julia Garner, who stars as Jane, almost single-handedly carries this expressive yet laconic #MeToo drama. She works as an assistant to a powerful filmmaking executive whose name is never explicitly mentioned. He could be Weinstein, or someone just like him. Jane refers to him only in hushed pronouns as she juggles a heap of tasks that go far beyond the role of an assistant.

She arrives in the office before dawn and leaves well after her cohorts have gone home.

She cleans the office, fixes vacuum cleaners, fills the fridge with Fiji water, reads scripts, prints out the day’s schedule, babysits and covers up for her boss when his wife calls to find out where he has been. And with whom.

It is a gradual build-up of a thousand small abuses, and you uncomfortably watch as Jane bottles it all up with a deadpan expression and a monkish patience. Halfway through, you begin to wonder which will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

It never comes as explicitly as that. But the climax of the film starts to build when Sienna, played by Kristine Froseth, is employed as the new assistant.

It is here that hints of their employer’s predatory nature start to emerge.

Jane seems to know the process well, especially when she finds out Sienna has been given a room at a luxury New York hotel. Soon, she finds out her boss has disappeared from the office. It does not take much to figure out what is going on.

The other employees are not only aware of what is taking place between the boss and his new assistant, they joke about it too. The boss's wife calls, asking his whereabouts, and Jane is left with little choice but to plead ignorance.

Jane eventually decides to speak up, providing the film with its most tense moment. She approaches the company's human resources department and is greeted by the smiling but soulless Matthew Macfadyen. He tells her more than 400 Ivy League graduates are vying for her job and asks her whether she wants to lose it all for "this"? He accuses her of being jealous, causing Jane to leave the office with a flurry of hushed apologies. He tells her not to worry – "you're not his type anyway".

The Assistant does not end on a resolved note but with Jane making a late-night phone call to her father. She wishes him a belated happy birthday, apologising for forgetting to call the day before. He asks her how she is faring in her job, and she says she is working long hours but does not elaborate. Her father encourages her, assuring her things will get better, and the film ends there.

But do not worry, we have not ruined the movie for you by giving away the ending. The Assistant is not about how a plot will unravel, rather, it offers an unadorned look at how a culture of complicity and helplessness allows crimes like Weinstein's to go unpunished for so long, and why many like him continue to abuse their positions to exploit others, spinning their webs in plain sight.

The Assistant is available to buy and rent on iTunes, Google Play, beIN On Demand, OSN Store as well as all local platforms including Du, Etisalat E-Vision, Ooredoo, Vodafone and OmanTel