While America continues with its "racial reckoning", there is another kind of "reckoning" that has grown a bit more quiet: the #MeToo Movement. The fallout over accusations of sexual harassment, abuse and assault that brought down many a Hollywood figure has quieted down. However, not even the most "woke" of men were spared. Comedian Louis C.K., FOX News head Roger Ailes, Today host Matt Lauer, Nerdist founder Chris Hardwick, now-former Senator Al Franken, Metropolitan Opera musical director James Levine down to "America's Dad" Bill Cosby were among many who found themselves tarnished, accused and even criminally charged for their past actions.
None however fell farther, further, faster or harder than Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein. Once one of the most powerful and feared figures in the entertainment industry, Weinstein was feted, worshiped and adored by such figures as Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Meryl Streep, who famously referred to him as "God".
Then came the cascade of accusers against Weinstein, and the man who bullied his way to Oscar glory found himself eventually locked up for his crimes, ignored by those powerful figures in film and politics that once curried favor with him and danced to his tune.
While The Assistant is not a literal detailing of Weinstein's brutality and crimes, it is a portrait of how someone so powerful can get away with it for so long. A steady and devastating portrait of the burden of silence and complicity of others, The Assistant may be a bit slow for some viewers but it is definitely worth the visit.
Jane (Julia Garner) is an assistant to "the Chairman", the head of a production company. She comes in before dawn to start out on her series of mundane activities, with her male counterparts coming in at their regularly scheduled time. As the day progresses, Jane keeps at her job but slowly sees that the Chairman is up to nefarious work behind closed doors.
It is clear everyone at the office is aware of the Chairman's shady affairs but are silent for their own reasons be it a belief that it's not their concern, that their jobs depend on their silence or even that they see nothing wrong with things. Jane, for example, overhears a group of executives come into the Chairman's office and advise one of them to "not sit on the sofa", chuckling along the way.
Jane opts to report her fears for Sienna (Kristine Froseth), a naïve Idaho girl the Chairman has brought with a promise of a job. The HR head Wilcock (Matthew Macfayden) seems pleasant enough but pretty much makes clear these charges will wreck her future, as well as that the Chairman's reputation precedes him. Jane opts to keep her silence, but knows that this may be a deal with the devil.
The Assistant is a surprisingly brief film (under 90 minutes) but in that time writer/director Kitty Green gives us the troubled day for the aspiring producer. Green's greatness in The Assistant is that the production company office workers are not portrayed as evil or even uncaring.
Instead, what it could be is that they are frightened, aware that speaking up and speaking out will cost them. Intimidated by this figure we never see, the culture that protects him is evident in small ways and small scenes.
After the Chairman learns of Jane's thwarted efforts, she is forced to write a letter of apology to him. Her two male coworkers (Noah Robbins and Jon Orsini, giving excellent performances in their small roles) walk over to help her craft this email. It's clear that they all know what kind of person the Chairman is and are sadly used to his ways, knowing what will please him. In turns devastating and sad, we see that creeping element of fear and resignation register with them.
The Assistant is a clear showcase for Garner as Jane. She is the central focus of the film, and she gives a quiet, restrained yet exceptional performance. Her scene with Wilcock is a highlight. With no dramatics or exaggerated camera work, we see how she hesitant she is to speak up, and see how she is quietly pushed down. Yet here, we see Jane's rage, not expressed with shouts or angry looks, but with tense resignation, the conflict coming at her.
Julia Garner gives one of the best performances of the year, one that is more intense by her quietness.
In his single scene Macfayden too excels as the quiet, pleasant but equally resigned Human Resources head. He doesn't make Wilcock evil or even unpleasant. He seems willing to listen, to help, but he also quietly makes clear that Jane is essentially on her own. Not once does he become antagonistic or defensive. Instead, it's his quiet demeanor that makes his encouragement of her silence all the more devastating. When he tells her at the end she need not worry because "you're not his type", it's a painful moment of realization for the audience. No matter how pleasant, quiet, even good Wilcock is, he ultimately will fail in his responsibilities.
Wilcock, as good a man as he may be, is not there to protect the staff. He's there to protect the Chairman. Perhaps he does this with a misguided view that the company is not worth one person, but it's still a moment of sadness than of anger.
The Assistant is a spare, quiet film, and despite its brief running time perhaps some audiences would like more drama and big moments. I also think that at times the audio made things hard to hear, so that too may be an issue.
They are slight issues however, as The Assistant is a small film on a large, necessary and important topic. It is true that, to misquote a phrase, for evil to triumph good men (and women) must do nothing. When it comes to sexual harassment and assault, silence is not golden.