A hundred micro-aggressions add up to one macro horror, a thousand petty humiliations snowball into a big swallowed insult, a million infected paper cuts metastasise into a giant tumour of abuse. This is the situation in Kitty Green’s gripping #MeToo drama-thriller The Assistant, a nightmare of toxic office politics and media misogyny that now reaches streaming platforms after its showing at the Berlin film festival earlier this year. Its chill has deepened in my mind ever since.
This is a claustrophobic, intimately unsettling movie about the young female assistant to an arrogant, abusive New York-based film mogul, like the one now doing jail time in Rikers Island. It can claim to be the first drama that addresses the #MeToo issue: set before this behaviour was publicly challenged, part of the film’s point could well be to suggest that the abuse continues right now.
It takes place much of the time in an eerie near-wordlessness, with ambient office noises – scanners, printers, coffee-makers – subdued murmurings and overheard snatches of conversation and shouting elsewhere, in the inner sanctums of powerful men’s offices. This is the sound of frightened people keeping their heads down. The one stretch of conventional dialogue is the abrupt and jittery conversation that this assistant has with the hatchet-faced head of human resources, an ass-covering time-server. This nerve-jangling sequence reveals the momentary influence of David Mamet and his Hollywood play Speed the Plow.
Julia Garner is excellent as Jane, a young woman who has swallowed and internalised all the stress and humiliation of this job – a supposedly prestigious post that she landed shortly after graduating. She instinctively knows that silence and submission is the way to survive, and is on the way to normalising a corporate self-hate.
Jane is subject to numberless micro-mortifications daily: she has to cover up for her boss and at some level understands that a great deal of everyone’s administrative energy is consumed by this same thing. But it does not seem to get her any respect. She does not get to join in with the jokes and frat-boy high-jinks of her two young male colleagues whose only moments of contact with her come when they advise her on the emails of apology that she keeps having to send to her boss on account of being indiscreet about his movements when his wife has called.
Jane is worried. She sees beautiful young women signing mysterious legal documents without an agent or lawyer present for no obvious reason – and finds herself having to pick up items of woman’s jewellery and accessories that the boss’s guests appear to have left behind in his office and get them quietly back to their owners. She is disturbed that he has hired a beautiful young woman as his second “assistant” – to whom the film’s title may ambiguously refer – and has put her up in a downtown hotel where he is in the habit of taking “meetings”. Julia is just new enough in the job for this to be shocking to her and to make her feel that she should do something about it. Hence the visit to the HR manager, exquisitely played by Matthew Macfadyen with the same carapace of defensive cynicism and suppressed fear he had in the TV drama Succession.
The Assistant is a shrewd and brilliant look at the second tier of Weinsteinesque wrongdoing: the sexual abuse has to be enabled by assistants, who are often women and themselves subject to bullying interspersed by spurious gestures of ersatz charm or assurances that they are themselves being groomed for greatness as independent producers.
Jane is being glimpsed at a watershed moment: will she stand up to the abuse and risk career catastrophe, or go along with it? It is a brilliant study of what day-by-day, moment-by-moment abuse looks like.
• The Assistant is available on digital platforms from 1 May.
• This article was amended on 30 April 2020 to correct a character’s name.
Source: The Guardian