If the verbally abusive calls that Jane gets from her anonymous boss are the most explicit depiction of the extent of his cruelty, the most terrifying scene of Kitty Green’s The Assistant isn’t one of direct abuse. About halfway through the film, the young woman leaves her usual spot at her desk to go knock on another door - presumably, one of a HR representative. Visibly uncomfortable, Jane struggles to find her place as the man in front of her reassures her that she came to the right person for whatever it is that is causing her distress. He smiles, encourages her to take off her coat. There’s a glimmer of hope in this bleak office - finally, someone just might be on her side.
Finally, Jane gets off her chest what had been tormenting her. Her boss has just hired another assistant; a young, inexperienced waitress from Idaho, who he apparently liked so much that he hired her with no interview. This isn’t where the story ends: he also offered to pay for her to stay in a high-class hotel. As she struggles to find the words to go on, the man in front of her questions her: is this about jealousy? Where is the issue here? Slightly taken aback by the interruption, Jane keeps going all the same: said mysterious boss was at the same hotel as the young woman at the same time only a few hours ago, and she just found one of her earrings on his office couch.
We then have to watch as what we could have mistaken for an ally suddenly turns into a persecutor. Never letting the young woman defend herself, he insists that Jane is just stressed, that he doesn’t understand what she’s insinuating; and even if he did, isn’t the other assistant a grown woman capable of her own decisions? When questioning Jane becomes insufficient, he moves on to threats thinly veiled as cooperation: of course he could file a complaint for her, but that would just make her look bad, wouldn’t it? The conclusion of his argument is as sad as it was predictable: it would be much better for everyone involved if she just dropped the case.
If this wasn’t discouraging enough, the final sting hits as Jane gets ready to leave. As she’s opening the door, the representative calls back to her. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about”, he says, barely giving her one more look as he turns to his computer. She turns, a last glimmer of hope in her eyes. “You’re not his type.”
The Assistant may be set in a film production company, but its scope goes much further than a response to Harvey Weinstein’s crimes. Aside from the occasional reference to film sets and a short cameo from Patrick Wilson (simply credited as “Famous Actor”), this could be any office. As for the perpetrator himself, he is never shown on screen. Neither are his crimes. This isn’t a film about condemning the big bad rapist: everyone can do that by themselves.
What Green adds to the mainstream understanding of #MeToo is the open condemnation of this in-universe Weinstein’s employees. Apart from Jane and the new assistant, this is almost entirely a male environment, and little effort is made to cover up the abuse going on behind the scenes. It doesn’t have to be as flagrant as the HR representative telling her to drop her case. Several times of the course of the film, it takes the form of her co-workers looking at her as she gets another humiliating phone call from the big boss threatening to fire her, and naturally taking their place behind her as she drafts yet another mandatory apology email. “I overreacted”, one of them dictates. “It was not my place to question your decisions”, continues the other. The way these scenes unfold show how common they are, probably a daily occurrence; and yet no one dares to raise any amount of concern over it.
In some other film, the two men that Jane shares her working space could have been sympathetic - but this isn’t a position that The Assistant is ever willing to take. They may be helping her keep her job, but Green makes it abundantly clear that it is never out of the goodness of their hearts: rather, it is always with the aim of keeping the status quo in mind. Jane is only at the very bottom of the company’s hierarchy here: the abuse that is rampant within these walls is a company-wide shared secret that could be easily brought down would even a single person above her back her up. But they don’t. And it is very likely that they never will.
Most men can distance themselves from the Harvey Weinsteins of this world. A multi-millionaire Hollywood producer who abused dozens and dozens of women isn’t someone most of us have encountered or can relate to. The Assistant doesn’t need to point out that Jane’s boss is a terrible person: it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together here. Green finds the real story elsewhere, in the enemies that never dare to consider themselves as such. Sometimes, it’s someone laughing along at a rape joke. Sometimes, it’s averting your gaze when the victim starts looking too sad for your liking. Sometimes, it’s going home fully aware that your boss, your friend, your brother, your colleague is a rapist and peacefully going to sleep at night anyways.
The #MeToo movement was always bound to have an effect on pop culture as we know it. While Hollywood most certainly has a few distasteful biopics in store for us over the next few years, Kitty Green’s restrained cinema is a great example on how impactful the subject can be when handled by emotionally intelligent hands. The female nature of The Assistant doesn’t stop with the gender of its protagonist and director. It also lies in its complete confidence in its audience; in its understanding that women viewers who live in a world where abuse is a threat at every corner won’t need it to be shoved in their faces yet again to understand the gravity of the situation explored by the film. Julia Garner’s subtle performance as Jane gives us everything we need to know almost from the very first frame. Her nervousness, her stutters, her tired eyes, her shamefulness over doing things as simple as answering the phone or eating in the office are all things we’ve seen enough times either in ourselves or in other women to know exactly what the problem is.
As Jane’s day of work ends and the credits start rolling, it feels like a lifetime has just passed before our eyes. The HR representative said it best: she’s the “first to arrive, last to leave”, as easy to discard as to exploit. The knowledge that everything we just witnessed will have to start again in a couple of hours is a more effective punch to the gut than any explicit rape scene or violent dialogue could have ever been. Abuse doesn’t just stop with the abuser and the victim: it lives on after everyone leaves the scene, including the ones that pretend it isn’t there. The Assistant finally challenges those that didn’t feel concerned by the tales told by the victims of #MeToo and reminds them that they are more than likely to benefit from this cycle of abuse too. Systematic violence doesn’t only exist when it’s in in Hollywood or the evening’s news bulletin, and Kitty Green’s plea to take responsibility for it shouldn’t fall into deaf ears.