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.
The Assistant is trying something similar, but the final product is even more sophisticated. Green’s comfort with challenging and alienating her audience translates very well to fiction-film making. Though it’s only 85 minutes long, the movie is an heir to Chantal Akerman’s historic 202-minute Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a masterpiece grounded in ordinary, repetitive responsibilities that slowly build toward something ghastly. In following Jane’s dreary days on the job, Green is asking a question that has reverberated in the media since the dawn of the #MeToo movement: How could the employees of alleged abusers like Weinstein not have had some idea of what was going on—and how could they continue their work without saying or doing anything?
That notion of performing errands to support some amorphous evil suffuses the film, although it doesn’t ever fully surface. Green has crafted a hermetic, office-bound world so ambiguous that the moments when she reveals its dynamics directly sometimes come off as disconcerting. It’s more unsettling to watch Jane write a cloying email to her angry boss after some nebulous offense (“It’s not my place to question your decisions,” she types, at the advice of colleagues). Her predicament makes all the more sense when the viewer realizes how few details she’s actually sure about. Garner, who won an Emmy last year for her work in the Netflix series Ozark and has done sterling supporting work in TV and film for the past decade, is an outstanding anchor for the movie, perfectly calibrating each furtive glance and reaction to every subtle slight.
Eventually, The Assistant builds to a sort of climax with a meeting between Jane and an HR representative (played with sinuous skill by Matthew Macfadyen). Their brutally compelling exchange, which finally voices some of the unspoken truths of the movie, makes for a terrific ending. Unfortunately, this scene doesn’t come quite at the end; the closing minutes see a little more action that veers toward overstating the story’s themes. But those flaws are outweighed by The Assistant’s atmosphere—a crushing sense of dread that will resonate for weeks after you’ve seen the film.