The Assistant and the Messes Women Clean Up

Kitty Green’s new film portrays the cover-up of abusive behavior as both a menial everyday task and a slow process of desensitization.

Bleecker Street

There’s a pattern in The Assistant that recurs from the minute Jane (played by Julia Garner) arrives at her Tribeca office and flicks on the fluorescent lights one by one. Jane seems tranquilized, but not from tiredness. Before anyone else arrives, she starts the process that will define her day: cleaning up the filth that her boss, a bellicose and seemingly predatory film producer, has left behind. Over the course of the 90-minute film, Jane sweeps donut crumbs from coffee tables and scoops coffee cups into the trash. She picks up a delicate gold hoop earring from the floor of her boss’s office. She puts on rubber gloves to scrub something from his couch—it isn’t clear what, because the camera stays fixed on her impassive face while she works. She plucks used syringes of erectile-dysfunction medication from his trash can with her bare hands and lays them on her desk before repackaging them in a medical-waste bag, sealing it with a careful knot.

The burden of cleanup consumes The Assistant, Kitty Green’s hypnotic, deeply unsettling new film about an employee who becomes, over the course of one workday, more and more uneasy with the physical and emotional degradations of her role. Jane’s boss—obviously modeled after Harvey Weinstein—is never fully seen in the film. His presence is defined instead by the detritus he sheds, the things he consumes, thoughtlessly and messily, before discarding them. Sometimes these things are plastic bottles of Fiji water or crullers or paper-wrapped sandwiches. Often, though, they’re women.

Ever since The New York Times and The New Yorker in 2017 revealed numerous allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Weinstein dating back decades, one of the trickiest issues raised has been complicity. Weinstein’s alleged behavior—demands for sex acts from actresses in return for film roles, the abusive treatment of women who worked for him, the blacklisting of people who refused him—was reportedly an open secret in Hollywood. (The producer has denied all accusations.) Weinstein was protected by a peculiar kind of omertà, enforced not by honor but by nondisclosure agreements and toxic ambition. And Weinstein’s assistants, young women who made other young women feel safe agreeing to enter intimate spaces with him, have seemed especially implicated in enabling him. How much moral compromise can their supposed myopia be worth?

But what The Assistant makes clear, through the stultifying routine of Jane’s day and the equally numbing indignities of her position at the very bottom of the office hierarchy, is how infectious systems can be. And the system that has calcified around Jane’s boss is one of cleanup, from the corporeal to the corporate level. During her day, Jane prepares checks for her boss to sign that have no names attached to them, only dollar amounts. When she asks about this, she’s told, “He’ll know what they’re for.” She returns the hoop earring to an anxious woman who seems to want to say something to Jane before thinking better of it. In one scene, Jane, while fielding a call from an emotional woman speaking Spanish, Googles vacuum cleaners on her browser, as if to hammer home the symbolism of the conversation she’s having. “It’s not your fault,” Jane tells the woman. “I’ll fix it.”

As much as The Assistant is about Weinstein, it’s also about the particular kind of labor that women are often given, and the toll it takes on them in return. Jane is the most junior of three assistants; the other two, both men, task her with the most domestic of all the office chores—picking up lunches, tidying conference rooms after meetings, taking care of the boss’s kids when his executive assistant brings them into the office. Personal calls—like the boss’s wife calling to demand why her credit cards have been cut off—are directed at Jane. So is the burden of escorting a palpably young, painfully enthusiastic woman (played by Kristine Froseth) to a hotel after she’s ostensibly hired as an assistant. In the car, the woman excitedly tries to chat with Jane, and Jane is expected to offer reassurance and kindness in return, even as her own misgivings about what exactly the woman has been flown in from Idaho for seem to mount.

Jane, the movie makes clear, is being conditioned for a very particular kind of role. Over the course of her day, no one uses her name or greets her directly. (Though the characters in the movie have names, none is ever specified.) The other two assistants throw balled-up paper in her direction when they want her attention. Two women chatting about a promotion in the kitchen act as if she’s invisible, leaving coffee cups behind that she silently begins to wash. The process of dehumanization that’s being applied to Jane seems intended to break her, to make her more susceptible to the scraps of praise she does get, and more loyal in turn to the man who occasionally decides to bestow them. But she isn’t the only one being reduced to a cog, or a potential complication. “Who’s that?” Jane asks a senior woman at the company after an actress is led into her boss’s office. “That is a waste of my time,” her co-worker replies. Later, Jane watches the actress’s show reel on her computer and leaves it in her boss’s bag, as if to try to restore some portion of the woman’s identity.

Throughout The Assistant, Green establishes how systemic the mechanisms protecting Jane’s boss are, and how Jane might come to tacitly accept the things that still, in the earliest months of her job, disturb her. The more messes she fixes, the more desensitized she gets. Already, she’s habituated to the remnants of abuse—the stains on fabric, the bloodied syringes on her desk, the jewelry inadvertently discarded. Getting used to the degradation of the women cycling through the office, and disposing of them too, is just another kind of cleanup. During the movie’s one prolonged scene of dialogue, Jane raises her concerns about the woman flown in from Idaho to an HR manager (Matthew Macfadyen). Hostile and deliberately obtuse, he gaslights her, suggesting that she’s imagining things, that she’s jealous, that she’s throwing away a promising career. He pushes a box of tissues toward her. Then he takes the piece of paper from his notepad on which he’s jotted a few cursory notes, balls it up with his fist, and throws it into the trash, his own work all done.