Corporate America is an exceptionally terrible place to find individualism. After decades of systemic abuse and routine overworking going unreported, we’re finally starting to learn the truth about how employers mistreat their employees to help save a few pennies. This kind of demoralizing, soul-crushing labor has infected plenty of different industries, but it was swept under the rug by most involved until some key people started talking out against it.
The Assistant is shining a light on this very broken system. It doesn’t give a clear message or even give a call of action, but instead just accurately recreates what a typical day in the life of an overworked, undervalued, and often forgotten employee is like in modern society. It sucks, to put it bluntly.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t suck, though I wouldn’t call it an easy watch.
Director: Kitty Green
Release: August 30, 2019 (Telluride Film Fest), January 31, 2020 (Limited)
Let’s just get this out of the way right now, for anyone that is expecting an actual plot or character arc to sift through. The Assistant is almost a faux-documentary with how it plays out. There is a general semblance of something going on and even some details about a CEO’s horrible behavior to tie details together, but this isn’t a film about following a traditional three act structure. This is a very sobering, difficult look at how modern society works people to the bone and expects them to turn a blind eye to the evil they see.
The film focuses on the life of the titular assistant, a woman named Jane (Julia Garner). Working for an unnamed film production company in NYC, we follow her daily routine and watch with unwavering eyes at how mundane a lot of her tasks are. If there’s one thing that is utterly remarkable about The Assistant, it’s the atmosphere this film creates through deliberate use of visuals and audio.
We’re only ever really seeing a few locations, but the sterile look and feel of every room mixed with a total absence of music (until the very end of the film) builds into a film that feels like it moves at a glacial pace. In the beginning, you may even wonder why you’re watching what seems like typical clerical tasks unfold with no payoff. Jane turns on the lights, starts up all the computers, makes some copies, picks up trash: it can feel deflating.
But that sense of defeat and utter befuddlement is exactly what corporate America is built on. Highly paid executives get to whisk around the office doing interesting stuff and abusing their powers while the lowly workers that keep the cogs turning have to put up with long hours and a total lack of recognition. I should even add that the only reason I know the main character’s name is Jane is because of the IMDB page. I can’t recall hearing anyone actually use her name during the film.
After setting the stage so thoroughly, The Assistant does then start to show an even uglier side of society. Jane is transferred onto a call with her boss’s wife and we hear the woman demanding that she speak to her husband. It’s pretty clear the man is cheating on her and is lying through his teeth, but Jane obviously has no idea what to say. This is the first she’s heard of it and all of her co-workers are acting like lying to this woman is the expected thing to do. Jane tries to offer some words of advice, but is then soon reprimanded by a very disgruntled and expletive filled rant from her boss over the phone.
Trying to keep her chin up, Jane returns to her dehumanizing tasks and the film sort of sets back into the same groove it did in the opening. About part way through the movie, a subplot emerges where a new assistant is hired and Jane starts to piece some concerning things together. This woman is beautiful, young, and not really qualified to work there, but her co-workers remember her from previous excursions with the boss.
To reveal more will rob the movie of its best scene, but you can probably figure out where this is going. The Assistant is holding a mirror to the Hollywood industry and showing how ugly and cold hearted it really is. People who simply want to create art and bring their vision to the world are met with old executives that have long since forgotten what it’s like to have a heart.
Everyone on the cast does a great job with their material, but the real star of the show is the sound design. That lack of music I mentioned is crucial in giving The Assistant the identity it wants. If there were emotionally manipulative songs placed during tough moments, the audience would be subliminally told how to feel. Instead, actors are layered over each other, phone calls are given barely audible voices, and the background ambiance of the office can overpower general conversation much like in a real corporate setting.
Nothing slows down in this film to better help you understand what’s going on. It’s absolutely perfect in nailing what it feels like to work in this type of setting. Everyone is busy with 1,000 tasks at once and the world isn’t giving them the proper conditions to best succeed. It doesn’t help that the constant fear of an unseen CEO is pushing workers to their breaking point and that even those put into power to help protect worker rights don’t seem to care.
It’s not all that hard to understand why some won’t enjoy The Assistant, however. Drifting so far away from what many would call a standard film, it’s not like you’re learning about this main character or seeing people overcome adverse odds. The film ends on a bittersweet moment, but it’s also one of indifference in the face of this decade’s old machine that chews up and spits out soulless executives. It’s a rather bleak film.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. It doesn’t matter if the average filmgoer ends up liking The Assistant or not. This film is more one for Hollywood and the fat cats that have been abusing their powers for too long. It can even apply to every other industry where overpaid executives that are out of touch with the average citizen have gone unchecked for eons. You are the evil that is causing all kinds of problems.
It might be tough and it certainly isn’t pretty, but The Assistant is absolutely an important film. You owe it to yourself to at least watch it once.