Friday, February 7, 2020

Australian Filmmaker Kitty Green Casts a Cool Eye on a Predator's Retinue in The Assistant

Julia Garner as the hyper-efficient Jane / Bleecker Street
(Kitty Green, 2020, USA, 87 minutes)

Jane (Julia Garner), who lives in Queens, wakes up so early to get to her job in the City that it's pitch black when she leaves her apartment (the better to appreciate the glittering lights of the Queensboro Bridge). Unlike most office drones, though, she doesn't bike, drive, or take the train. A chauffeured car picks her up. As the first employee in the office each day, Jane turns on the lights, makes the coffee, and gets to work.

Australian filmmaker Kitty Green's narrative feature debut, after the documentaries Ukraine Is Not a BrothelThe Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, and Casting JonBenet, focuses on one day in Jane's life at a Manhattan entertainment company that resembles Miramax in its early days, before it became The Weinstein Company, and before things got ugly. Her coolly observant film journeys into the heart of that ugliness.

Jane is pleasant and professional, and because Emmy winner Julia Garner (Ozark, The Americans, We Are What We Are) plays her with a minimum of fuss, she comes across as a convincing human being, though some of her tasks aren't exactly typical, like when she writes checks for large amounts to unnamed recipients, returns an earring from the floor of her unseen boss's office to the uncomfortable woman who left it behind, or wipes down her boss's couch with rubber gloves and cleaning fluid. Why would she do such a thing? Green knows we know why, and doesn't need to spell it out.

Jane with Sienna (Kristine Froseth) / Bleecker Street
The director often shoots Jane from slightly above, an odd but not especially distracting choice. The point seems to be to show her from the perspective of a person, presumably a man, looming over her desk. The ironic part: the film is from Jane's POV. We see what she sees--except when we're watching her. Even then, though, we aren't privy to anything beyond her line of sight.

This approach stands in opposition to Casting JonBenet, in which actors auditioning for roles in a re-creation of the case of the six-year-old Colorado girl's still-unsolved murder look at the camera and talk about themselves and their characters, including the victim and her parents, Patsy and John Ramsey. The documentary also features a sweeping score, unlike The Assistant, which eschews any noticeable soundtrack--other than the garbled buzz of voices issuing from cell phones and from behind closed doors.

Toward the end of the day, Jane decides to tell HR director Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen) about the troubling things she's been noticing, because she's been cleaning up after them. Macfadyen plays Wilcock in a lower-key register than his status-obsessed Tom Wambsgans on HBO's Succession. He makes it clear to Jane that she should keep quiet if she wishes to remain employed. He ends by saying something an HR director should never say to an employee who suspects their boss of sexual harassment. It's meant to be reassuring, but only proves he knows exactly how deep the rot goes.

Matthew Macfadyen as Wilcock / Bleecker Street
The other assistants (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) with whom Jane shares her office space also provide hints that they know about their boss's extracurricular activities and that it's best to remain as oblivious and subservient as possible. After they've left for the day, and after she's shown an attractive new assistant (Kristine Froseth) the ropes, she's the only one left.

I wasn't sure what to expect from a filmmaker best known for her documentary work, but now that I've seen The Assistant, I find myself noticing more similarities than differences, since Casting JonBenet features sequences in which actors recreate scenes from real peoples' lives, much as in the films of Robert Greene, like Kate Plays Christine and Bisbee 17. In other words, before Green made a narrative feature, she was already heading in that direction. As she puts it in the press notes, The Assistant is "a fiction film that had an intensive documentary-style research process," since Jane is a composite of the many female film workers she interviewed.

There isn't much more to her film than what I've described. Jane starts and ends her day in darkness--literally, not metaphorically. If she didn't know what she was getting into when she took the job, the five weeks she's spent at her boss's beck and call have shown her all she needs to know. During her meeting with Wilcock, she tells him she aspires to be a producer. If she stays, she just might get there; if she leaves, she just might not. She's a recent college graduate, and nothing is written in stone, but she's also contributing to a toxic environment in which women are the primary victims.

Kitty Green doesn't judge her, and Julia Garner is too savvy an actress to beg for the audience's sympathy, but it's hard not to feel conflicted. It took a lot of hard-working women, like Jane, to help Harvey Weinstein reach the pinnacle of his profession. But it also took a lot to bring him to justice.

The Assistant opens at Pacific Place on Feb 14. It is not a good date movie.

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