Starring Julia Garner. Rated PG
David Lynch meets Chantal Akerman in The Assistant, a horror movie masquerading as a dry procedural. Or is it the other way around?
The Lynchian part is the industrial hum of copiers, computer fans, air conditioning, and fluorescent lights, coupled with murmuring voices behind closed doors and at the other end of furious phone calls. Almost everything stays within a limited palette of grey, green, and rose. And these cold elements bring an asphyxiating sense of dread to the daily routine of an unnamed assistant, played with exquisitely painful control by Ozark's talented Julia Garner, also a delightful ditz opposite Lily Tomlin in Grandma. The job is at an unnamed Tribeca film-production house very much like Miramax when it was run by Harvey Weinstein. (Intriguingly, most of the characters are given names in the credits but are not spoken on-screen.)
The Akerman vibe recalls films like her classic Jeanne Dielman, in which a soul-dead widow makes ends meet through prostitution, which she handles blandly—until the moment she doesn’t. Nothing hugely dramatic happens in the writing-directing debut of Kitty Green, who previously made tough documentaries. Here, the tedium is the point. The assistant arrives before everyone else, leaves last, and in between is a combination receptionist, maid, babysitter, and all-around extra-competent problem solver. But she’s really ground down by what’s going on behind those mahogany doors.
We never see Him, but do hear from the Wife, occasionally throwing her weight around and/or questioning her husband’s whereabouts. The new assistant, in her job less than two months, has noticed that He Who Shall Not Be Named often disappears around the same time pretty young nobodies, aspiring actresses, and other dark-haired women show up. Then there’s the task of cleaning the executive couch.
Actually, the biggest challenge of this particular day involves deciding whether or not to visit HR with her concerns. Our troubled observer, called Jane in the credits, dreams of being a producer, and there’s no indication that she has been personally abused by the boss. It’s less than reassuring when one slimy frat bro (Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen) states that she’s “not his type”. Jane tries to connect with the very few women in the office, but they seem even more closed-off than the men, who are quite helpful when she’s called upon to craft rote apology letters to prickly higher-ups.
The movie comes in at a brisk 85 minutes, and that’s good, since few of us would be able to tolerate spending a full day facing unspoken horror the way Jane does. It’s just one person going through the motions in an unspecified place and time. But The Assistant speaks eloquently to the Right Now, and leaves us wondering, in the end, who is really assisting whom, and why.