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Film Review: The Assistant

8 May 20 words: Roshan Chandy

Roshan Chandy reviews this unblinking insight into the haunted house horrors of harassment...

Director: Kitty Green
Starring: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh
Running time: 85 minutes

This unthinkably grim drama about a junior assistant (Julia Garner) observing and experiencing workplace harassment from a New York entertainment mogul arrives in stark contrast to Bombshell, another 2020 #MeToo movie featuring women making a stand against reactionary office politics and covert misogyny.

I found Bombshell to be a stylish but shallow affair full of flashy newsroom sets and lip gloss yet never really scratching the surface of sexual misconduct any further than sensationalist tabloid headlines. In the case of The Assistant, there’s nothing remotely attractive or “Beverly Hills” about the greyed, morose boardrooms that encompass the setting of its entertainment industry - and that’s precisely the point.

Where previous works have sometimes unintentionally indulged in the tiaras of Tinseltown, The Assistant is an impressively minimalistic film that’s prepared to transmute public perceptions of the entertainment world as being all pizzazz while soaking viewers in the hell of harassment and abuse. Want evidence? Watch Julia Garner’s eyes crumble into a million tears while on the phone to the big boss berating her for “interfering” in his “personal affairs”. Witness those very same pupils affright with alarm at semen stains on her boss’s couch, the last remnants of cocaine on his desk or used syringes in his bin. Hers is a superb performance of few words, but a carapace of physical gestures and mannerisms.

Not only a story addressing very real horrors, but a horror film itself

Just as Roman Polanski famously withheld Rosemary’s Baby from viewers, director Kitty Green makes the inspired choice to keep her titular assistant’s superior firmly off-screen. His presence is merely suggested through the piercing sound of manic laughter behind closed doors or, as mentioned, ear-splitting screams down telephone lines. In insinuating so, Green leaves the physicality and machinations of this monster down to audience imagination. It’s an ingenious touch that bodes chillingly in a world where so many horrendous acts of abuse go sealed off and unseen to the naked eye.

I’ve talked already about The Assistant being a movie that exposes the hell of harassment to the big screen. I would go one step further in saying it’s not only a story addressing very real horrors, but a horror film itself. All the hallmarks of genre cinema can be found in Green’s grisly, intoxicating direction from the isolating panoramic sweeps across nondescript office spaces to the film’s fraying, ghostly grey colour schemes to the straining loneliness of Tamar-kali’s score. Just as a haunted house offers a cacophony of chills in place of any feasible escape, this workplace is a reality with seemingly no way out except potentially up - a toxic food chain of misconduct from the highest offices downwards. A chain that desperately needs breaking.

I’m not sure this movie is quite the masterpiece some are heralding it as. It’s certainly a tough watch in terms of encapsulating an environment of relentless gloom, but I do wonder whether maybe a bit of light to all the shade would’ve made The Assistant more accessible to mainstream movie-goers. Don’t get me wrong, though, this is robust and resolute #MeToo film-making. Wholly important and urgent in the post-Weinstein world of 2020.

Did you know? Director Kitty Green said about the film: "It's not just about Weinstein. This problem was everywhere."

The Assistant is available to rent now

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