While reviewing The Assistant, I saw an Instagram post advertising a talk show segment about the film. I directed myself to The Social, CTV’s knock-off of The View. What I saw dumbfounded me. There, in a semi-circle of jovial women, was The Assistant director Kitty Green discussing her film inspired by Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual assault and workplace harassment with The Social’s Lainey Lui. Lui knows the Weinstein game all too well, for she provided a smokescreen that enabled it for years.
Green probably didn’t know that she was discussing the mundane machinations of workplace harassment with one of its accomplices. (Nor, presumably, did anyone on The Assistant‘s team.)* Film fans, however, recall that Lui partly made a name for herself with a blind item about an actress and an executive. It alluded that said actress, presumed to be Gretchen Mol, traded sexual favours for roles with a mogul, presumed to be Weinstein. While Lui maintains that she didn’t confirm either party’s identity, she has yet to express remorse for the damage she caused to Mol’s career and reputation. Moreover, she has yet to acknowledge that such gossip is instrumental in the normalization of assault, harassment, and misogyny.
As Mol herself wrote in a 2017 column for The Hollywood Reporter, the only truth to the matter was that Lui’s blind item inspired many people to overlook Weinstein’s behaviour. Outlets like D-Listed, Vox, and Celebitchy knew the source without Mol naming it. (Vox even did so before Mol spoke out.) Lui continues to be an authority on Hollywood and its stars. She discusses harassment on panels for films like Bombshell and interviews the stars/would-be Weinstein victims on red carpets. Seeing her discuss The Assistant with Green was too meta to ignore.
The Assistant Hits the Bull’s-eye
Whether one chalks up Lui’s transgression to an indecent one-off or part of a larger pattern of shoddy journalism, her eagerness to discuss Weinstein with Green, as well as the tactlessness of The Social’s team to allow her to do so, speaks to the degree with which The Assistant hits the bull’s-eye. People have no problem ignoring the toxic behaviour of colleagues who help them get ahead. Green’s film boldly and frankly lets audiences witness the covert complicity that is pervasive in many workplaces. To watch The Assistant is to be strapped to a chair like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. However, while Alex sees explicit violence, the terror of The Assistant arises through implication. There is ample horror to see and it’s impossible to close one’s eyes.
Green’s film presents one day in the life of an assistant, Jane (Ozark’s Julia Garner). Jane is a relatively new hire as the assistant to a film executive named Tony. Green doesn’t show Tony, aside from a few fleeting images of a guy (Patrick Wilson) walking through the office. Simply by his arrogant body language, one can assume he’s Jane’s boss.
Masterfully Researched and Realized
Even without showing Tony or naming her source of inspiration, Green’s film delves into the intricacies of Weinstein’s crimes. These appear in daily chores in which Jane cleans up his mess. Jane picks up an earring. She scrubs bodily fluids off the couch. She stocks a refrigerator with syringes and puts the used ones into medical waste bags. (Any reader of Weinstein reportage or Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s fascinating She Said knows that Miramax assistants provided their boss with medication for erectile dysfunction.) These degrading duties appear as routine as checking the mail and answering the phone. They are simply tasks one must perform in a menial entry-level job. (They also ensure that Jane has no time to read two-bit gossip blogs about her boss.)
Other aspects of Jane’s day show the extent to which Tony’s toxicity perverts the workplace. Her colleagues are all workaholics who bend at Tony’s whims. Jane escorts a young starlet to a hotel. She then endures a meeting in which male colleagues identify the reason of Tony’s absence. When Jane finally does the right thing and reports the behaviour, Tony’s colleague (Matthew Macfadyen) who is presumably a stand-in for Bob Weinstein, turns on her. He asks why she’s putting her career at risk by snooping into her boss’s personal life. He reminds Jane that she is disposable and can be replaced with someone willing to get ahead. Again, it’s all a game of power and control.
The Assistant as Victim and Survivor
The nuances of the dimly lit toxic work environment resonate strongly with the stories emerging from the #MeToo floodgates. Jane’s exchanges with Tony, when he berates her by phone or she placates him via email, ratchet up the tension as her boss thrives on a perverse game of power and control. Each exchange consumes her within the apparatus of Tony’s design. Moreover, by focusing on Jane’s ongoing struggle with being a cog in the harassment machine, The Assistant makes clear the daily hell that is not unique to her workplace.
Virtually every frame of The Assistant hinges on Garner’s performance. The film is often gruelling hell as one watches the knots turn in Jane’s stomach. She is an outsider in the office. Tony’s transgressions aren’t merely an open secret in the office. They’re a joke and a tacitly accepted reality of the office environment.
Garner’s masterfully captivating performance presents a young woman trapped in an awful situation. She realizes the gut-wrenching stories of survivors of Weinstein’s hunts. However, underneath the chaos and discomfort on Jane’s face, Garner invests the character with a courageous awakening. There are subtle recognitions in which Jane realizes how easily she could be a victim of the behaviour she inadvertently enables. Flickers of great strength rise up in Jane, like when she refuses to lie to Tony’s wife or confronts his partner. The unspoken frustration that builds on Jane’s face throughout the day speaks volumes. Enough is enough.
Re-Shifting the Blame
One owes it to Jane and other victims of this toxic machinery to return to Mol’s words. “I had heard similar rumors about other actresses and Harvey Weinstein for years, even before I heard them about myself,” wrote Mol in her THR op-ed. “I knew that it was not true in my case, so I naively assumed it was equally false in general. The consistent implication was that actresses were eager for the bargain, that we wanted fame and fortune so desperately that we would make this kind of nauseating concession. This is another kind of misogyny, and blame-shifting.” These words are Jane’s hell in a nutshell.
The Assistant makes painfully clear the nauseating concessions people make in their quest for power. They are so pervasive that even a film that addresses them can’t escape them. The film is a wake-up call for audiences everywhere, at any rung of the corporate ladder, to recognize the foul machinery of which they are apart. Any small act, from sharing a blind item to turning a blind eye, contributes to a larger problem. By the end, Jane makes clear the necessity of confronting uncomfortable truths to break the cycle that makes victims of us all.
The Assistant opens in theatres Feb. 7
*Update: a representative from the film’s distributor confirmed that they did not know about Lui’s history prior to the publication of this review.
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