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.