The Assistant digs into the toxic office politics that protected a monster

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Assistant
Available on VOD
Opens May 5
3 out of 5

During the Golden Globes in January, host Ricky Gervais cracked a joke that drew gasps from the star-studded audience. “Our next presenter starred in Netflix’s Bird Box, a movie where people survive by acting like they don’t see a thing — sort of like working for Harvey Weinstein.”

Gervais was not wrong. Even before The New York Times and The New Yorker first reported on allegations of sexual misconduct against the former Miramax honcho in October 2017, his bad temper and lecherous ways were well documented.

At no point is Weinstein referred to directly in The Assistant, but his presence looms large. The film, written and directed by Kitty Green, is basically a day in the life of a producer at the peak of his powers, from the perspective of one of his underlings.

The assistant in question is Jane (Julia Garner, Ozark), an overworked, underpaid secretary angling to become a producer. She’s the first one to arrive in the morning and one of the last to leave at night — not that anybody notices.

Instead of participating in high-powered meetings, Jane’s main job is fending off her boss’s disgruntled wife. She also babysits his new “discoveries”, disturbingly young women from out of town hoping to become “stars”.

After one too many red flags, Jane tries to raise the issue with human resources (Matthew Macfadyen, Succession), where her complaint is noted and summarily dismissed. It’s an astonishing sequence. Not only does HR obliterate the complaint, it moves the necessary pieces to get the employee back in line (“I’m tough on you because I think you could be great”). It’s a well-honed act of gaslighting.

The Assistant unfolds in a deliberate manner. Yet the dense, hopeless atmosphere never dissipates. It’s not an easy movie to watch, but it’s so laser-focused on making an important point, it earns our attention. The film is particularly good at depicting the small indignities of being at the bottom of the office pecking order and how wearisome it can become.

In the end, we get a clearer picture of how Weinstein avoided justice for so long. The man used his success to dissuade his victims from coming after him, and convinced his employees their careers depended on their silence.

Green goes a little further, though, and suggests the film industry is uniquely susceptible to this kind of dynamic. As someone who has spent a fair amount of time on movie sets, I can tell you verbal abuse and obnoxious behaviour go unpunished more often than not. It all checks out.