It is still dark when Jane (Julia Garner) leaves her home for work, sleeping in the back of the car as it moves towards the seductive Manhattan skyline. Upon arrival, she prints reports, schedules flights, and cleans her boss’ office surrounded by no one. As the day progresses, coworkers (usually men) leisurely take their seat and begin their day. Even once the office is fairly full, Jane has yet to speak to anyone, receiving occasional nods as she asks people about their weekend. While The Assistant is a timely film for a moment overflowing with stories of abuse in nearly every sector of the economy, Kitty Green’s attention to the mundane isolation women face on a daily basis makes this deadpan horror film particularly powerful.
Inspired by the Weinstein scandal, the film follows Jane, a young woman who aspires to be a film producer, working as an assistant to an influential male producer. We never see his face. This lack of physical representation is essential to the film’s horror tone as it leaves the audience to fill in the gap with every terrible boss they might know, creating a larger than life amalgamation of all the bad men of Hollywood and beyond. Rarely seeing Jane’s boss adds significantly to the isolation she suffers at work. She is barely afforded the dignity of face-to-face interaction, only receiving menacing phone calls when she makes a “mistake.” That mistake, however, is failing to cover for him as his wife calls the office demanding to know his whereabouts. One of Jane’s male coworkers, originally on the receiving end of the call, passed it to Jane to handle. The most painful part of this scene is not the consequences of the call or the fact that Jane was left to deal with it precisely because it was the boss’ wife calling; It is in fact the brief curiosity on Jane’s face at the prospect of possibly bonding with her coworkers over a phone call before realising their intentions. In other moments, the two men that work alongside her in front of the large looming private office constantly share inside jokes, jointly listening in on calls, leaving Jane with only messes and complaints.
Most women, or people of any marginalized background, can see themselves in Jane, on the fringes of the office social hierarchy. As the film follows her over the course of one work day, it is clear that she is working long hours that damage her own social life. Yet, her work does not make up for that fact, creating a life where she is completely isolated in and out of the office. As her boss’ abuse of power becomes evident, Jane struggles to go through the day, confused why her coworkers continue to act like nothing is out of the ordinary.
A product of this workplace isolation, Jane has no one to confide in, the only female coworkers coming and going quickly as they also tend to the tasks left behind by the men. This case of gendered burnout takes a physical and mental toll, leaving the women no time to organize and process the daily humiliation and isolation they are subjected to in the name of preserving power for men. In addition to the women in the office, there are young actresses subjected to sexual violence with promises of a career in Hollywood. This abuse, almost a character itself, is visually absent from the film, making it easier for bystanders to collectively deny or use as punchlines in jokes.
In a moment of desperation, Jane heads to the Human Resources department. A man (Matthew Macfadyen) is on the other side of the desk, and she barely manages to voice her concerns. Unsurprisingly, she is told she is jealous and overreacting to unsubstantiated gossip. She too is offered promises of scaling the career ladder at the expense of her health and other women. Upon leaving, he comforts her by saying she is not her boss’ type anyway. She’s lucky, he infers. Instead of suffering literally at the hands of her boss, she will get the prize of writing apology emails, tears forming behind her eyes, as her male coworkers stand behind her dictating her every word. By making the violence and its perpetrators invisible, Green creates a horror film where sexism and workplace abuse is the creature lurking in the shadows, waiting to claim its next victim.
At my particular screening, a confused male spectator asked,“That’s it?” as the credits rolled. If by ‘it,’ he means the daily humiliation and isolation women face in the workplace to secure the power of abusive men, then yeah, that’s it.
The Assistant will play Berlinale Film Festival and open in UK cinemas 3 April
by Hannah Benson
Hannah Benson (she/her) is a writer based in New York City. A graduate of New York University, she wrote her thesis on filmmakers Agnès Varda, Joanna Hogg, and Greta Gerwig. You can follow her on twitter @HannahMBenson and find more of her work on Contently.