I’m far from a structuralist hardliner. By all means, flip things around. Change the way stories are told. Form follows function, and if you can make it fly, I’m buying a ticket. But ughhhhhhh, nothing happens in The Assistant.
At its most generous description, The Assistant is a series of vignettes very well enacted by a still-squandered Julia Garner. There’s no inciting event, no connecting narrative. It comprehensively depicts the litany of offenses women face in the workplace, but none of that is built into a cohesive narrative.
Julia Garner endures toxic masculinity to get a job in the film industry, and then it’s over.
If that sounds dismissive, please understand, you could shuffle ALL the scenes in this film around, and it would be the exact same story. We’re nowhere at the end that we weren’t at the beginning; alpha-bros are terrible, and women shouldn’t have to endure their behavior. While this is a true premise, the film never enacts it dramatically. To call her character a protagonist is to presume a central conflict, a climax, and a change that simply do not exist.
I was taught in English that discourse slotted into argumentative, illustrative, narrative, and expository. And while cinema may not be subject to the same categorization, I can tell you this is a whole lot of the second while you’re begging for the third but would settle for the first.
So why, like we saw with Hereditary, is it so critically acclaimed even as audiences reject it down to the last quarter? The film pulls 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, but only 25% among viewers:
Of all the stories of actual work place harassment they could have told, they told one where a woman gets shut down and is complacent. Fuck this movie. Fuck me for picking it.Rotten tomatoes
Oddly, most of the worst reviews come from women. That may not mean much in a world where so many of Trump’s most prominent Twitter defenders are women, but none of these irate fans is tackling it on veracity or accuracy. It’s strictly about the fact that this film’s perfect depictions of vulgar culture in each moment fail to assemble from bricks into a wall. This movie is like a ride through a haunted house at a carnival, but the camera is fixed on the passenger the entire time.
I want to be painfully clear that I am not missing the subtler despair of trying to make it through a day among awful men; I’m not ignoring nor downplaying the emotional grind that this film walks its main character through. I’m saying that this very important, rife-with-potential topic does NOTHING narratively. What few decisions are afforded the character are rebuffed, and if the point of the film is “Nothing you do matters, women have no room to maneuver in this system,” hey, okay, Kafka. But it was written, directed, and produced by a woman who got THROUGH that system, and I really, really feel like she probably has more to say about how to fight its shittiness.
The most impressive thing is that we’ve finally found a screenwriter who doesn’t draft their power fantasy to actually take on their frustrations.
Instead, we get ambient cinema. Imagine if Brian Eno covered “Janie’s Got a Gun,” but made it 31 minutes long, removed all the lyrics, and then ended it on the bridge. Infuriatingly, this nonstarter is about a really important, timely topic. What a waste of Julia Garner. What a limited statement on the god-awful, pervasive macho culture that descends on markets full of money and acclaim. The antagonist is, by design, more shapeless force of nature than a person, but this never builds to an overwhelming ending fitting of its concept and the Naturalists.
In fact, what is the concept? Go ahead, I defy you. “A young woman struggles against the sexism of the film industry”? Well, she neither conquers it, nor is defeated by it. To call this an existential film is to credit it with the presumption of existence. I’m trying to picture it as a Tribeca version of “To Build a Fire,” but I can’t. And neither can any other fan:
The film was absolutely pointless. Not sure anything happened at all. Oh no wait, an assistant received a few emails from a nameless man that no one meets.
To be sure, PLENTY of strong reviews on the site come from women, as well as men. Let’s look at one:
If you’re female (or a gay male) and you’ve ever worked in an office as an assistant in an intimidating environment, you will relate to the helplessness and fear that dominate a situation like that. I’m not sure everyone will enjoy this movie, but I did because I could relate to what she was going through. Great acting by the main character. Some of us have been there and feel the sadness, pain, terror and exhaustion that you are hiding so well.
Okay, I get that. I do. I’ve never been subject to it, but the whole point of movies is to empathize with experiences of others. If you recognize every moment as true, there’s a successful piece of illustrative cinema. And that praise is still only a 4/5 review because NOTHING HAPPENS IN THIS MOVIE. The closest thing to a narrative spine is Garner’s character can see the boss will prey sexually upon his new assistant, nobody believes her, and then he does.
And even that sounds like more happens than it does.
Let me roll it back. This is a low-frequency film, let’s review it again. What we know: relentlessly, in every scene, Garner’s character is beaten down. One fan reviewer calls it “steadily and inexorably more aware of the slow drip of repeated and varied abuses, insults, rejections, indignities and being patronised.”
True! And good groundwork. But as the same 4/5 star review points out, “There is no violent catharsis because such things are not permitted to a woman – especially not one who wants a career in the future.”
And hey, cool, but NOTHING ELSE HAPPENS IN ITS STEAD.
How is this film any different without the main character? The assistant still gets cornered in the boss’s office. Garner’s character is practically a Greek chorus barring one emotional beatdown in the HR office.
Again and again and fuck you, movie, AGAIN:
“I love Julia Garner, and really wanted to love this movie because I love psychological thrillers. Despite the high RT ratings, there is nothing redeeming in this depressing movie. I kept waiting for a clever reversal of fortune for Julia, but alas there is none. No message, other than human abuse is bad…. get over it, or used to it.”
Let’s try to defend it again:
“While I was watching it, I was wondering why I was watching it, but as time went on and especially after it ended, it’s brilliance really made an impression on me. That movie was not made to entertain you. It was made so you can experience how subtle and insidious sexual harassment can be and that it hides in plain sight. You will either love it or you will hate it like this audience reviewer did: “There will be a special place in hell for those that made this movie. The kind of hell that you will experience if you are unfortunate to watch it.” He doesn’t realize that it’s the “nothing to see here” attitude that is the problem the writer was trying to impress on us, and it just caught him red handed.”
Okay, but that’s NOT A MOVIE. You have to sell the audience on why there IS something to see here and it’s really fricking important to stop dismissing it. You have to make it MATTER to the people who poo-poo this kind of shit as normal. If you make a film where there’s nothing to see here, then you’re saying that there’s NOTHING TO SEE HERE. And I feel vehemently sure that with inimical sexual predation, there is in fact a lot to see here.
I can’t find a single positive review that says WHY it’s good. It’s just “masterful direction” or “this is the way it really is.” The former could use some qualification, and the latter is absolutely true, but it still needs to coalesce into a story. Here’s the closest to an explanation: “the inert nature of the film brings strong focus to the little details of harrassment in the workplace. In a beautifully subtle way Green has brought strong focus to the daily battle of women everywhere.”
That’s to its credit in any given scene, but it’s not a narrative; you can’t construct a building out of the giltwork. The pervasive dismissal of the main character’s valid concerns proceeds all the way to her own father not hearing what she’s trying to tell him…yet somehow, still, none of that means anything when the character and the events have no bearing on each other besides trading dirty looks across the room. This film is all paint and no chassis.
Back to Rotten Tomatoes. Paul S says, “If you’re looking for chase sequences, confrontation or frantic photocopying a’la Tom Cruise in The Firm then forget it. This film is a slow burn. “
And Paul, sorry, but a burn implies a chemical reaction whereby the kindling is incontrovertibly converted to a new physical state. As stated above, every single scene of this film could occupy any position in the order of the cut, and NOTHING would change. You’d just think it was several days instead of one. Which, until the bottom half hour of this garbage can, I did anyway.
The only good things I have to say about this movie are Julia Garner creates her character’s exhaustions well despite no actions and few decisions available to ground her, and it catalogs all the existentially despairing ways the office can be a hellish ordeal for a woman, especially in the film industry. But the rest of it, ugh. It was written, directed, and produced by Kitty Green, and it’s a shame she didn’t have a second party in any of those roles to tell her to tighten up.
Richard M gets it:
“While the creative choice of showing the tedium that envelops the (almost) banal world in which Jane works is not a bad idea, it cannot be the ONLY lens through which we see her world. It became incredibly frustrating when I realized it was going to be a never-ending day of utter sameness. While the character might exist in a world immersed in dull and repetitive monotony, audiences should not come away feeling this was also their experience. […] The film needed more of what we saw in the HR scene; more bite, more tension, more… something. The issues surrounding the abuse of women like Jane MUST be told, but these stories also must be told in ways that compel us, and not bore us into a place of indifference.”
I know this is going to sound asinine coming from a dopey guy like me, but even in fiction: women deserve better. Especially women who have to contend with environments like this.