The explosive revelations of the #MeToo movement began in Hollywood with the crimes of one man, yet the forest-fire speed of the movement across social media illustrated just how deeply sexism and abuse are embedded into the lives of women across all walks of life. Sexual harassment and assault are not endemic to a certain industry. Rather, abuse thrives in settings where old, outmoded structures of power still reign and where authority isn’t questioned.
Filmmaker Kitty Green handily depicts this kind of oppressive work environment in her latest feature, The Assistant, which she both wrote and directed. The film follows Jane (Julia Garner), a low-ranking assistant to a powerful executive at an entertainment company. As she goes about her day, Jane silently observes the ways in which abuse is perpetuated and excused at the company, but she is ultimately unable to speak up about what she knows.
Along with several other college journalists, I sat down with Green to discuss the inspiration and influences behind The Assistant.
The action of the film revolves around Jane’s nameless boss and his implied misconduct, but aside from a few scenes in passing, he’s never depicted on screen. The only lines he delivers are harsh rebukes over the phone, his voice gritty and distant. Green explained that she kept the camera focused on Jane rather than her boss out of a desire not to sensationalize the pain of assault and harassment victims.
“There’s too many films about these kind of bad men, and I wanted to center women in the narrative,” Green said. “What to me was more interesting was what’s going on the other side of that door, and the machinery around this predator.”
The Assistant also subverts expectations by letting Jane remain a silent observer rather than a victim of misconduct. In a disturbing scene, a human resources employee (Matthew Macfadyen) brushes off Jane’s concerns about her boss’s behavior, subtly tearing her down until she’s sunk low in her seat, huddled in an oversized coat. As she’s almost out the door, he mentions to her casually that she has nothing to worry about anyway, because she isn’t “his type.”
Green explained that The Assistant focuses on Jane specifically because of the larger systemic problem of gender inequality in the entertainment industry. Jane is a product of an unfair system, a talented Northwestern graduate who nonetheless is at the bottom of the totem pole with no way up in sight.
“I thought, why don’t we start with the least power at that company and figure out what her day is like and why she isn’t being promoted, as opposed to concentrating on the few people who somehow survived and got to the top,” Green said.
As one of the lowest ranking members of the company, Jane’s work day is long and monotonous, and viewers see it all—from her bleary-eyed pitch-black morning through dozens of repetitive clerical tasks, to a night that ends like any other. Jane leaves work defeated after having been silenced by the human resources employee, and her boss continues his pattern of abuse. If audiences were hoping for some last-minute justice, they came to the wrong theater.
According to Green, the cynical, anticlimactic finale is partly due to the fact that the film is set before the rise of #MeToo. Small details allude to the period, such as outdated software.
“I do think if it was set today, I hope she would have a space or some sort of avenue to speak up about her concerns, and maybe she could have an audience,” Green said.
Featured Image Courtesy of Bleecker Street