'The Assistant' tackles Hollywood's Harvey Weinstein era with a quiet exploration of power

Between the lines, “The Assistant” is about those who have power, those who don’t and how the use of it becomes institutionalized.
Image: Julia Garner in a scene from "The Assistant."
Julia Garner in a scene from "The Assistant."Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street via AP
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By Elena Sheppard

A little over two years ago, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s bombshell in The New York Times broke the story about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein's alleged sexual harassment, abuse and unwanted physical contact with women in the industry. Since then, more than 80 women have come forward and accused the man, once considered one of Hollywood’s most powerful, of sexual misconduct; multiple women have accused him of rape. He is currently on trial for rape in New York City and he was recently charged with rape in Los Angeles, as well. For decades, Weinstein lived a life defined by power and powered by his sinister and continuous subjugation and assault of women; it was the words and voices of women that eventually cut him off at the knees.

Weinstein lived a life powered by his sinister and continuous subjugation and assault of women; it was the words and voices of women that eventually cut him off at the knees.

Weinstein’s reckoning was a long time coming. Rumors of sexual misconduct trailed him for years, though they were barely said above a whisper or without a knowing wink. In the aftermath of his fall, as well as the fall of many other men in his and other industries accused of sexual misdeeds, Hollywood has been forced to confront its sins — the biggest of which was enabling such a man to sit at the top of its food chain. Now they are grappling with how to tell this story, a story entirely interwoven with modern-day Hollywood itself.

“The Assistant,” written and directed by Kitty Green, is one of Hollywood’s first attempts at telling the story of Weinstein or, more specifically, the story of a man like Weinstein. The film follows a day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner, of “Ozarks” fame) five weeks into her job as a junior assistant to an unnamed movie mogul. Though said mogul is never seen, his voice is heard from behind closed doors or growling over the phone, and the ripples of his power are acutely felt throughout. The film is more statement piece than great cinema. And it is impossible to watch and not come away with the impression that this man is some version of Weinstein. This comparison is aided by the mogul’s dingy office in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City (where Weinstein also kept an office), the mogul’s friendliness with the White House (like Weinstein's) and the mogul’s diabetes (like Weinstein has).

Even so, the film very deliberately does not follow or focus on the man at the center of the story. Instead, we watch Jane with ultraspecific detail. We stay with Jane from well before the sun rises until well after it goes down (she’s working through all those hours). Green makes sure to focus acutely on the mundane qualities of Jane’s work, which can drone on but are done with a purpose. “Focusing on the routine was very important to me,” the director told Entertainment Weekly. “I wanted people to be able to emotionally identify with her and be in her shoes. And in order to do that, you kind of have to live the day with her, do every task, and see what she does from sunrise to sunset.”

See Jane make copies of beautiful women’s headshots, see Jane wipe down her boss's notoriously skeezy couch, see Jane put the pieces together. Jane naively comes to believe she has all the evidence she needs to take down her boss. But if revealing the truth of a man like that were simple, Weinstein would have been exposed decades ago. Not so. There are systems in place.

See Jane make copies of beautiful women’s headshots, see Jane wipe down her boss's notoriously skeezy couch, see Jane put the pieces together.

Telling this story from the perspective of such a young, inexperienced assistant shows how the most well-meaning could be brought into this damaging environment and over time made to believe it’s normal. Jane is seeing this office culture with both fresh and innocent eyes; she isn’t hardened to the sexual abuse that she believes is taking place against others, even while she believes the emotional abuse she’s enduring is just a reality of the job. Jane is an adult by definition, but is still shadowed by her childhood; she eats Fruit Loops for breakfast in the break room, she calls her mom for comfort. When she attempts to flag misbehavior to human resources, she is threatened and gaslit.

Green is a documentarian (her last film was “Casting JonBenet”) and that documentary approach is on display in the quietness of “The Assistant.” This isn’t a thriller; perhaps we can expect something more similar to that from the Weinstein story that Brad Pitt is attached to. Instead, Green’s story is a quiet exploration of pain and power, that reveals, as she said, how a system is created that “keeps these men in place, and keeps women out.”

Hollywood has been artistically dealing with its institutionalized sexual imbalance as far back as 1924, when the single-reel silent film “The Casting Couch” told the story of a young actress who was made to believe she wouldn’t get a part unless she slept with the casting director. Filmed decades later, Asia Argento’s 2000 film “Scarlet Diva” features a scene in which an overweight movie producer tries to rape the film’s star; Argento has said it is a semiautobiographical retelling of her own alleged experience with Weinstein. In the last six months, there have been a handful of other films and series that deal with the #MeToo movement and its most high-profile stories: “Bombshell” tells the story of women at Fox News who took on Roger Ailes, “The Morning Show” tells a story with all the shades of TODAY hostMatt Lauer. Both stories, like “The Assistant,” focus on women; the men have determined this narrative for far too long.

Toward the end of “The Assistant” a young actress comes after-hours to the producer’s office. Jane is obviously torn about what to do: stay and protect the woman who she is nearly certain will be coerced into sleeping with her boss, or do as she’s told and go home for the night. She opts for the latter, getting into the elevator with two colleagues as they leave the boss and the woman alone upstairs. “Don’t worry,” an older female co-worker tells Jane. “She’ll get more out of it than he will.”

Depending upon who you are, “The Assistant” could seem like it’s about every aspect of the Weinstein story, or so quiet that it seems to be about almost nothing. Between the lines though, “The Assistant” is about power; those who have it, those who don’t, and how the use of it becomes so institutionalized that you can be told not to worry, go against your gut, and listen.