There are “Dirty Jobs” (2003–12), and then there are jobs that would make even Mike Rowe wince and gulp. Aspiring film producer Jane (Julia Garner), the protagonist, audience surrogate and essentially the sole character of “The Assistant” (2019), has one such job. In the early morning darkness, Jane slogs from Astoria to TriBeCa, bringing to life her office’s strident fluorescents and uncooperative printers. Her juvenile bro-workers communicate with her via crumpled-up papers thrown in her direction. Her meals, habitually interrupted by colleagues wordlessly handing her papers to copy or dishes to wash, are Froot Loops or TV dinners eaten standing up in the break room.
On the surface, writer-director Kitty Green’s 87-minute movie reads almost like a hostile work environment training video. Following Jane’s soul-crushing daily routine and studying her methodically downturned lips and glazed-over eyes, however, is something far more insidious than a woman-led “Office Space” (1999) rehash. “The Assistant” was not marketed as a horror film; its cinematic strategy eschews jump scares, gore and for most of the film, a soundtrack. But Eli Roth and Ari Aster would be hard-pressed to rattle an audience’s bones the way Green shakes ours when Jane ferries a wide-eyed aspiring filmmaker from Idaho to a hotel-room meeting with her unseen movie mogul boss.
That detail, the invisibility of Jane’s Harvey Weinstein stand-in boss, makes “The Assistant” one of the #MeToo era’s most provocative and disturbing films. By shifting the focus away from the monstrous personality and onto those who spray 409 on his office couch and ensure he’s driven to his private jet on time, Green accomplishes a fascinating study of how evil infects those around it: not violently or dramatically, but gradually, monotonously and unstoppably.
“The Assistant,” as mentioned, dramatizes just one of Jane’s nightmarish days working under this looming figure. The nature of his crimes simmers just beneath the office’s surface conversations. As she types an ongoing email apologizing to him for an undisclosed past breach of protocol, her office-mates suggest phrasing tips. Jane takes the elevator down to return an earring to a woman he’s previously met, who casts her eyes down and shuffles swiftly out. The aforementioned, unsuspecting Idahoan asks Jane in the car if she was put up in a fancy hotel in her first days on the job, and Jane can only shake her head.
Green, who most recently directed the Netflix documentary “Casting JonBenet” in 2017, is no stranger to the magnetic, lurid power of these horrorscapes. “The Assistant” is a masterclass in atmospheric filmmaking; she and cinematographer Michael Latham lure us up the elevator into Jane’s hellish world and box us into the four walls as compactly as Jane’s winter coat, folded up and shoved into a desk drawer.
Without a standout performance from Julia Garner, though, “The Assistant” would not work nearly as well as it does. The film relies entirely on her to guide it through subtle shifts in tone and keep its insinuations just at arm’s length. And Garner, fresh off an Emmy win for “Ozark” (2017–), shepherds it along perfectly. Each defeated sigh and each blink held just a split second longer than necessary gives us the vital time we need to compose ourselves and drag ourselves methodically along with her for just one more task, one more phone call, one more day. With Garner at the helm, “The Assistant” feels interminable, humiliating and hopeless.
Such adjectives are not usually reasons to laud a film, but “The Assistant” makes them its greatest assets. Green and Garner work in consummate partnership in this film, laying each tiny moment of hope sparingly at our feet but never minimizing the titanic monstrosity lurking just behind the camera. By the time the credits roll, “The Assistant” has achieved a truly remarkable feat: its unseen antagonist’s comeuppance feels desperately, sickeningly far away.