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Power Failure 

The Assistant brilliantly captures the dynamics that protect abusers.

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click to enlarge BLEECKER STREET FILMS
  • Bleecker Street Films
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The understandable marketing hook for The Assistant is that it's a #MeToo story—and, more specifically and provocatively, that it's a thinly-disguised swipe at Harvey Weinstein. It's not that such a designation is inaccurate, as much as that it's incomplete. Because the structures that make sexual abuse and harassment not only possible, but pervasive, are complex, most narratives skim the surface by focusing on the horrible situations faced by the victims. Writer/director Kitty Green has tackled something thornier, even as she pointedly omits showing us the crimes themselves—because the monster here is harder to pin down.

Structurally, it's extraordinarily simple, showing us a working day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), who's just five weeks into her job as assistant to the never-seen, never-named chairman of a New York-based film production company. From the moment she arrives before everyone else in the office, we watch her deal with her everyday responsibilities—getting everyone's lunch, coordinating the logistics of the boss's schedule, and cleaning up his office after various meetings. In some ways, it's a fairly typical bottom-of-the-totem-pole position in a competitive industry, but one that allows Jane glimpses at how the boss might be taking advantage of his top-of-the-totem-pole status with various women.

That component of the story takes a while to emerge, though we get a hint from the moment we see that one of Jane's first morning tasks is spraying down a stain on the boss's office couch. For much of the first half-hour, the events are deceptively mundane, except that Green does a brilliant job of setting the table for how people take advantage of "the new girl." When a call comes in from the boss's wife with a difficult problem, one of the other assistants passes the problem on to Jane; when Jane is washing dishes in the office kitchen, a pair of other women casually leave their stuff for Jane to take care of, which she does with a barely perceptible clenching of her back muscles as Green shoots Garner from behind. Every interaction in The Assistant is predicated on who has power, and how the asserting of power manifests itself.

This dynamic is on display most horrifyingly in the film's centerpiece sequence, which finds Jane visiting her company's human resources department to share with a manager (Matthew Macfayden) her still-developing concerns that the boss might be doing something inappropriate with women, including a young woman just arrived from Idaho who has been hired as yet another office assistant. Macfayden plays the scene magnificently, stripping every ounce of "human" out of "human resources" to convey his utter lack of concern for what Jane is trying, uncomfortably, to convey; his willingness to interrupt their meeting for an obviously personal phone call underlines how casually he's treating what he knows are allegations of wrongdoing, but clearly will never address. And it's here that The Assistant punches home the foundation of every kind of abusive behavior: Once you see that the structures in place will never hold the abuser to account, the sense of powerlessness only magnifies.

Because so much of The Assistant focuses on Jane, Garner's performance is absolutely crucial, and she nails it in a way that's simply heartbreaking. Green crucially establishes the character not as some kind of superwoman—Jane does make mistakes—but as a smart woman with ambition under steadily mounting pressure. There's no big showpiece scene or you-go-girl speech for Jane, so the subtlety with which Garner reveals her worries and her insecurities becomes the emotional center of The Assistant, and it takes a special talent to give all of that to viewers.

It's not a spoiler, I'd argue, to note that Jane herself is never the target of her boss's sexual advances; the idea that she's "not his type" is dropped with a disturbing casualness. But The Assistant explores a different kind of manipulation in the way that the boss can keep Jane under control by suggesting that he appreciates her talents, and can groom her for bigger and better things. This is a story not just of the abusers and the abused, but how power dynamics affect those who might be able to do something about it—by setting them up in a position where they know to keep their heads down, and their mouths shut.

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