Julia Garner in The Assistant film 2020

The Assistant is a chilling exploration of how sexual predators exploit the workplace

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Kitty Green’s devastating drama explores the culture behind the Weinstein scandal, revealing how power is used to intimidate and silence.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, I remember hearing and seeing variations of one phrase again and again: “Everybody knew.” It came up in conversations in the pub and on Twitter and on the news. Quickly, we learned that the now-convicted rapist’s behaviour had been an “open secret” in Hollywood, London, New York and beyond. A consensus emerged: Weinstein was able to abuse women freely for decades because he was protected by people in thrall to his power.

There is clearly a lot of truth to this theory. Weinstein could not have operated as he did for such a long time had he not been coddled, insulated and defended – by friends and employees who at worst actively facilitated his behaviour, and at best chose to pretend they were unaware of it. As the #MeToo movement picked up speed, I remember feeling repulsed by the idea of these shadowy figures in Weinstein’s orbit, who – it was easy to believe – had chosen to enable him in order to preserve their own careers.

But The Assistant, a new film written and directed by Kitty Green, complicates this narrative. (Originally slated to appear in UK cinemas this spring, it has now had a digital release due to the coronavirus crisis.) Julia Garner plays Jane, a recent college graduate five weeks into a job at a prestigious film production company in Manhattan. Jane (whose name suggests Jane Doe, the pseudonym often given to anonymous women in US court cases) is bright and diligent, with aspirations of one day becoming a producer herself. 

But as the most junior assistant to the tyrannical man at the top of the business, she is the lowest of the low. Ignored or treated with barely-disguised contempt by more senior staff (a company culture of cruel disrespect seems to flow from the top), she’s stuck doing menial tasks: booking flights, setting up meeting rooms, printing scripts. 

Yet Jane also has a startlingly clear window into certain aspects of her boss’s life. She wipes down his couch first thing in the morning. She makes his protein shakes. She fields distraught phone calls from his wife. She prepares cheques for him to sign, and notices that some of the names have been left blank. She finds strange jewellery scattered about his office, as though it’s been yanked off or dropped in a hurry. 

Notably, we never see the producer himself. He is always a looming presence in another room, a muffled voice screaming down a phone. In part, this serves to make him scarier (the most frightening monsters are always the ones we can’t see), while solidifying his image as someone cloistered and untouchable. But it also means that the camera is almost always on the slight, quiet figure of Jane. Rather than interrogating the producer’s motives, we are left wondering: what does she know?

The film doesn’t shy away from inviting us to see her as complicit. If you’re familiar with the intricacies of the Weinstein story, certain details in The Assistant will make you shudder. In one scene, we see Jane methodically unboxing a carton of syringes containing erectile dysfunction medication – a clear reference to the Weinstein case (in 2017, two of the ex-producer’s former assistants told The New York Times that they had been responsible for procuring penile injections for him, which they were sometimes required to deliver to him before his meetings with women).

In another scene, Jane makes a reservation for the producer at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. (At Weinstein’s trial in January, Jessica Mann testified that the producer raped her twice: once at the Peninsula, and once in New York after injecting himself with erectile dysfunction medication. It was Mann’s testimony that saw Weinstein convicted of third-degree rape.) As Jane blithely books suites at the Peninsula, does she have any idea what the producer might be doing there? It’s impossible to tell. 

Julia Garner in The Assistant film 2020
The Assistant film review: Julia Garner is phenomenal as the ethically compromised Jane

But even as The Assistant invites us to examine Jane’s complicity, it also highlights how impossible it would be for her to take action against her boss. She’s not the only one aware that he is – at the very least – regularly unfaithful to his wife: she hears the crude jokes in the office. 

Yet she has no evidence of criminality, and her nagging suspicions and tiny crumbs of information seem inadequate. The Weinstein scandal taught us that we can assemble an entire jigsaw if everyone contributes a single puzzle piece, but you get no sense that any of Jane’s colleagues would be willing to stand with her to share what they know. She is utterly isolated: this film fails the Bechdel test not because Jane spends all her time happily chatting away to her male colleagues, but because she hardly speaks to anyone.

“You’re on a fast track working here,” says the company’s HR man (played with repulsive pseudo-empathy by Matthew Macfadyen), when Jane attempts to share her concerns with him. “We could use more women producers. It’s a tough job, but I can see you’ve got what it takes. So why are you in here trying to throw it all away with this bullshit?” It’s a terrifying illustration of how predators maintain their control in the workplace. Jane is not a craven careerist willing to throw other women under the bus, we realise; she just has no idea what to do. The suffocating hopelessness of it all feels overwhelming.

Of course, we know that it’s not hopeless. Weinstein is currently in prison precisely because people did speak out – and, in part, because women like Jane were brave enough to share the tiny fragments of information they had. But The Assistant does not moralise or make grand statements about the power of women’s voices. Neither does it seek to cast all men as villains and all women as heroes. Instead, it asks us to consider a genuinely disturbing question: if we were in Jane’s shoes, what would we have done?

If you or anyone you know has been the victim of sexual abuse, seek confidential help and support with Rape Crisis.

The Assistant is available to rent or purchase now via iTunes, Amazon, Curzon Home Video, Mubi, BFI Player and Rakuten TV

Images: Vertigo Releasing

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Moya Crockett

Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.

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