Sometimes when I watch a movie I feel the urge to write about it immediately, but events rarely allow me to act on that. In the case of director Kitty Green’s “The Assistant,” which I watched early last month, that time gap is a particular shame. It’s a very good movie, a superb one, even. And yet, writing about it now, in late June, feels like a real disservice to a film that might already have missed its moment in time.
“The Assistant” is a fictional take on life in the orbit of a Harvey Weinstein-like character, seen through the eyes of his executive assistant, played by Julia Garner. It follows a very long, ostensibly routine and casually horrific day in the life of Garner’s character, allowing us to experience the myriad indignities, humiliations and crushing disappointments of life in the employ of a powerful psychopath.
This is likely the very best narrative film to come out of the #MeToo era, but its release in the spring of 2020 feels unfortunate. Even if it had been released just half a year earlier, say at about the same time that Ronan Farrow’s book “Catch and Kill” came out, it might have really found an audience. But when I watched it in early May, still in the midst of quarantine living, when it had gone straight to video-on-demand and without a theatrical release, it felt like few others were talking about it, much less watching it. And now, with the civil unrest over the killing of George Floyd, time really seems to have gotten away from the filmmakers.
Which is a tremendous shame. Not only does “The Assistant” offer an incisive commentary on the power structures that enable abusive men, but it does so with an extremely deft level of artfulness. There’s a unique quality to the whole film that’s weirdly vague and almost blurry. Characters don’t get names—Garner’s character is only named in the credits, and her employer is only ever referred to by his pronouns—and actions aren’t explicit. At a pivotal moment in the film, the protagonist can’t even describe the principal conflict she’s experiencing in any material detail.
At the same time everything in this movie still somehow manages to be incredibly specific and even unambiguous in its emotional power. The film is never less than direct in its commentary, and is even unflinching in addressing the complexities of the abuse. Nothing is named, but no one in the film—or the audience—is under any misapprehensions about what’s happening and who’s involved. Superficially, it bears the hallmarks of a small, independent feature film—it was filmed in just a few, modest locations, without any major set pieces. But it’s constrained and succinct not necessarily because that’s all that its budget allowed, but rather because that narrow focus allows the story to be told with exactly the incisiveness and searing accuracy that the filmmakers intended.
As for the rest of what I watched in May: I managed a bit of a comeback, fitting in twenty-two movies watched, up significantly from April’s total. Here is the full list: