Monday, May 4, 2020

The Assistant

Australian born writer/director Kitty Green

Actress Julia Garner (left) with director Kitty Green

THE ASSISTANT         B                 
USA  (85 mi)  2020  d:  Kitty Green              Official site

A spare and minimalist film about sexual abuse in the workplace, made in the shadow of the Harvey Weinstein trial for rape that is currently under way, told from a woman’s point of view, following a day in the life of a new hire on the lowest end of the ladder of an exclusive Tribeca film production company in New York, made to resemble Weinstein’s Miramax, Jane (as in Jane Doe, an anonymous figure), played by Julia Garner, who got her start in Sean Durkin’s equally creepy Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), who should be thrilled at a new opportunity, thinking her life may finally be on the right path, yet all indications suggest something sinister is afoot, becoming an eerie film closer to the horror genre, accentuating a murky atmosphere with dire consequences.  The film is dry and emotionally minimalist, played down to its bare essentials, actually resembling the extreme low-budget look of Shane Carruth’s PRIMER (2004) or Steven Soderbergh’s BUBBLE (2005), early experiments in digital cinematography, where the washed out color and an underscored sound design are as important as anything viewed onscreen, where nothing is revealed, per se, but the story is in what is suggested, where the near unspoken narrative is revealed by the banal accumulation of tiny details, all pointing to a near mythical male authority figure at the top who is never seen, but heard screaming profanities into the phone when things don’t go right, as underlings are blamed, where they are humiliated and bullied into writing immediate apologies, with male production assistants helping compose the precise language of a “correct” apology, one of the foundations upon which this company operates, as routine habits are ingrained into the established culture where all are subservient to the man at the top.  Opening at the wee hours before dawn, while the city is still asleep, a company car picks her up and delivers her to the job, where she flicks on the florescent lights above the empty desks and starts her day making coffee, eating cereal, going through emails, before attending to the unglamorous details of her job, thanklessly organizing each day’s schedule, including the latest financial reports, making sure each of the upstairs executives have copies, while ordering office supplies and coordinating travel and hotel arrangements.  As people wander in, she is largely ignored (no one ever speaks her name), as people are glued to their phones or engaged in myopic conversations that exclude outsiders, who are not meant to be a part, where it’s clear everyone values their privacy, shunning any idea of sharing work information, as each exists in their own work space, separate and apart from all others.  It’s an odd work environment, where boundaries are fiercely protected, and everything is a closely guarded secret, sharing nothing, as you’re likely to get blamed vociferously if something leaks out.  

Originally conceived as a documentary, following hundreds of interviews of women in the industry, but also college students and theater groups, Australian born writer/director Kitty Green envisions a quietly shattering interior exposé that becomes an alarming warning system of the trivial routines that become commonly accepted in a male-dominated business where women are routinely relegated to secondary and inferior roles.  Jane starts her day in clean up mode, straightening up the mess that was left behind in her boss’s office the night before, which includes excruciatingly personal detail, like discovering missing earrings or putting on rubber gloves to scrub clean certain stains on an office sofa, even picking up used syringes, not to mention disinfecting the executive chair, all done with no questions asked.  Inspecting the contents of packages received, they include boxes of bottled water, but also pills and medicinal products that she carefully lines up inside his desk drawer.  She’s also seen washing dishes in a communal kitchen, with others dropping their dishes nearby for her to clean, yet no one ever even acknowledges her, including the other women working there.  Perhaps the defining visual image of the film is Jane delivering Xeroxed copies of scripts or a perfectly made smoothie to an empty chair, where each delivery is expected to be punctual, even though her boss is never seen, but remains a ghostly figure whose spectral presence hovers overhead until suddenly erupting audibly in enraged phone calls after someone screws up.  Jane is all but invisible herself, quiet, extremely reserved, ignored by the other two male assistants sitting across from her, Noah Robbins and Jon Orsini, listed in the credits as Male Assistant 1 and 2, essentially judging her every single move, making sure she gets the call from the irate wife demanding to speak to her boss, blamed as a co-conspirator in a seemingly irreparable marriage, then getting that hysterical call from her boss wondering what the hell she told her, overly disturbed by her inability to make the wife go away, an act for which she was ordered to apologize, with the male assistants obviously getting some sort of satisfaction, snickering behind her back like juveniles, as if this was a beginner’s hazing ritual.  Mostly what we hear is an endless clicking of keyboards, the sound of a Xerox machine, or brief bits of conversation heard from employees walking by, all producing an overly detached working environment, where employees are isolated from one another, while she goes from room to room sweeping up crumbs from various tables and removing the coffee cups, placing everything in a plastic bag, essentially taking out the garbage, while she’s also in charge of ordering lunch, yet gets scolded if anything’s wrong with the order.  When the other male assistants wish to get her attention, they throw wads of scrunched up paper at her, pretty much defining a degrading and dehumanizing work experience, yet they’re quickly at her side helping her compose yet another office apology when needed.   

Perhaps the most pervasive reality is the ongoing silence that sits in the air, as these offices aren’t filled with that familiar workplace chatter, instead you could hear a pin drop, accentuating a sense of personal isolation in her day to day tasks, where every miscue is elevated and viewed disproportionately, while offhanded comments about what goes on in her boss’s office are commonplace and the subject of jokes, while she receives blank checks for the boss to sign, which arouses her suspicion, but she’s told not to worry, as he’ll know what they’re for.  But she starts getting red flags when a new arrival appears named Sienna (Kristine Froseth), who seems overly young and without experience, working previously as a waitress, with the boss putting her up in an exclusive hotel after flying her in on a company plane from Boise, Idaho, while Jane is expected to train her as the new receptionist.  When she realizes the boss is away, presumably to visit this young hire at her hotel, Jane pays a visit to human resources to report alleged misconduct, but the man sitting across from her (Matthew McFadyen) paints a disturbingly *different* view of what she’s reporting, belittling every aspect of her allegations, suggesting it may all be in her head, that she may be under a lot of stress, working long hours, probably hasn’t seen her friends in weeks, basically impugning her character, discarding her account with utter derision.  And while she’s reeling from those remarks, he suggests she could be jeopardizing her career by filing a complaint, acknowledging she has every right, but undermines her at every turn, concerned only with protecting the interest of the company.  This astonishing scene sends chills down your spine for the manner in which she is completely devalued, her spirit broken, her testimony deemed worthless, eliciting tears from Jane, with this man shoving a Kleenex box in her direction as a condescending gesture of his ultimate triumph, demolishing any sense of self-esteem.  As she walks out the door, he tells her offhandedly that she has nothing to worry about, as she’s not his type anyway.  Yet by the time it takes her to walk back to her desk, all eyes are upon her, as everyone in the office already knows, shredding her reputation while violating every aspect of confidentiality, where it immediately becomes clear the entire structure of the company was built to protect one person.  Shortly afterwards, never feeling more helpless, she is again berated by her boss, with the fellow male assistants once again helping her compose a letter of apology.  Of course, yet another young woman pays a visit to the boss in his office, a young actress looking for a part, bringing with her some sample video material, remaining behind closed doors for the remainder of the evening, long after all the other employees have left and gone home.  Without revealing any graphic material onscreen, the film is reduced to an enormous amount of specific detail, creating an atmosphere of dread and mistrust, all conducive to a systematic code of silence that prevails at every level, both male and female staff trained to look the other way, with entry level employees having little recourse.  A brief phone call home with her parents offering trite and cliché’d gestures of support for finally landing that dream job only punctuates her crushing isolation.   

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