For much of its running time, The Assistant is devoted to routine. Kitty Green’s new film is short, quiet, and often monotonous, focusing on the mundane tasks that make up a workday for Jane (played by Julia Garner). She makes coffee, answers emails, and washes dishes; she arrives at the crack of dawn to clean out her boss’s office, down to the mysterious stains on his couch. Many of the requirements of her position are implicit; she has to be the first one in to work and the last one out, simply because that’s what’s expected of someone with her junior status. That’s also why she has to keep her mouth shut.
Jane’s job is to assist an unnamed mogul who is an obvious stand-in for Harvey Weinstein, and whom the viewer experiences only indirectly. He’s a lurking silhouette, an angry voice on the phone, and the writer of many a mean-sounding, all-caps email. He’s clearly up to something terrible, but it’s hard to tell what exactly that might be. As a result, The Assistant is like a horror movie with a dose of Kafkaesque surrealism: Jane’s workday is boring yet creepy, a series of menial chores in service of a person so monstrous the camera literally cannot face him.
This cinematic device takes a while to get used to, and that’s fully in keeping with Green’s style. Her last project, the documentary Casting JonBenét, was a strange and sporadically effective riff on the true-crime genre, a work that both recounted the 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey and reflected on the process of making a movie about such an unspeakable act. Green spoke to residents of JonBenét’s hometown about the case, under the pretext of casting them in a feature film. In assembling these talking heads to take stock of a particularly lurid moment in American history, Green found a distinct approach to a narrative that had become disturbingly familiar to audiences.