Powerful new movie like a silent scream
Quietly powerful, The Assistant is a film that's guaranteed to stick in your head.
The deeply uncomfortable movie is a searing examination of the toxic influence of power, fear and self-interest and the apathy with which we treat other human beings.
Written and directed by Australian filmmaker Kitty Green, the New York-set movie could be described as a day in the life of a female assistant to a Harvey Weinstein-type movie mogul.
But this isn't some flashy The Devil Wears Prada jaunt with designer handbags, a trip to Paris and a scene-stealing Meryl Streep as a hard boss with a gooey centre. Positioned firmly as a MeToo story, the vibe for low-key The Assistant is more like screaming silently.
Aspiring producer Jane (Julia Garner) is the junior assistant to an unnamed and unseen movie boss in his New York City headquarters, only a few weeks into the job.
She arrives at the office before everyone else, hours before the sun rises, setting out bottles of Fiji water, printing, and cleaning a fresh stain on her boss's office couch.
Over the day, she experiences a series of micro-aggressions that reinforces her position as the lowliest worker in this entertainment company, whether that's demands for apologies or co-workers leaving dirty dishes by the sink and then walking away as she's washing up, expecting she'll just do all of them.
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When a young, inexperienced woman turns up, hired as the fourth assistant after the boss met her as a waitress at a conference and is then ferreted to a lush hotel, Jane decides to say something.
When Weinstein was exposed as a serial rapist who abused his position of power, questions were asked why the coterie of people that surround him, including his female assistants, enabled his crimes.
The Assistant is a blazing look at how the culture of secrecy, cover-up and dismissal persisted for so many years - and how these women, actors and wannabe actors, became grist in the mill, barely acknowledged as people.
By telling the story through the perspective of a person in Jane's position - new to the world and with ambitions and goals of her own - it's easy to see how someone's soul, their sense of right and wrong, could be slowly, methodically and dispiritingly chipped away, worn down by a power structure you can't beat.
Garner is phenomenal in the role, a barely visible presence to everyone around her, but who carries the weight of this significant story.
Garner is best known for her showy, Emmy-winning role on Ozark, but here she's the opposite. Garner keeps everything just beneath the surface, from how she physically holds her whole body in to how she clenches her face, not daring to allow herself to betray her emotions.
It's an incredible performance to watch and there's a hypnotism to even the banality of her completing menial tasks.
Green's approach is spare and there's nowhere to hide, so every detail works to create a repressive and uncomfortable atmosphere - the discordant scraping of a metal tissue box across a table, the way Jane is physically positioned on the periphery of spaces.
The cinematography by Michael Latham is washed out, really highlighting the mundanity of an office environment but one in which extraordinary acts are committed as if they're just par for the course.
There is great power in what The Assistant doesn't say explicitly. At no point does any character say the word "sex" or outright address what the boss is doing. Instead, it's all innuendo, jokes and veiled threats.
The single earring found on the floor, the joke about never sitting on that couch, a comment that Jane has nothing to worry about because she's "not his type" - everyone knows exactly what's going on and so does the audience, which makes us complicit in the system that allowed the crimes to perpetuate.
The Assistant isn't just a revealing or important film, it's one which entrances and almost distresses. Maybe next time, it won't be a silent scream, it'll just be a scream.
The Assistant is available on video-on-demand platforms such as iTunes and Google Play from Wednesday, June 24, and is also playing in select cinemas in Victoria
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Originally published as Powerful new movie like a silent scream