More insidious than any of the violence in Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho was the sight of the investment banker Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) casually removing from his jacket a single blonde hair. The whereabouts of the head to which that hair had been attached was unknown, but the moment eclipsed any of the film’s instances of outright horror.
Now it’s the turn of another director to use absences and ellipses to evoke the carnage of a monstrous Manhattanite. The Assistant, the fiction debut from the innovative Australian documentary maker Kitty Green, catalogues a day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), who has recently started work at a film production company. “Is it fun?” asks her father, excitedly. As a description for 16-hour days spent catering to the whims of a predatory bullying sociopath within a system designed at every point to remind women of their worthlessness, “fun” doesn’t quite cover it.
Her day, which begins at dawn when an unseen driver ferries her to the office from her home in Queens, is divided into units of menial activity choreographed like abstract dance. She switches on the lights, makes coffee, unpacks the bottled water, all while the camera drifts robotically sideways around the neat compartmentalised set: a clean visual look for a dirty business. The subservience demanded of her is signalled by the film’s title appearing in tiny lettering in the bottom corner of the screen over an image of a New York street, consigning her job description literally to the gutter.
One of her tasks is to scrub the previous night’s stains out of her boss’s couch (the word “casting” is implied) and it is here that she finds the film’s equivalent for that blonde hair from American Psycho: a single, delicate earring on the floor. The abuses and debasements it represents are implied, and possibly infinite.
With the entrance of a male colleague, the visual grammar shifts slightly, and a new camera position is introduced: a tight, high-angled shot looking down on Jane like a scornful invisible judge. Her job offers a peculiar mix of being scrutinised and ignored. Colleagues fail to notice her in the lift and only the occasional footling error seems to make anyone aware of her presence. The film generates meaning from her repetitive routine, along with an acrid horror from incidents that are hinted at but not shown. Non-disclosure agreements are signed; meetings with young women are moved from afternoon to evening, boardroom to hotel suite, with sinister efficiency.
What plot there is emerges from the dawning of Jane’s conscience after she shepherds a young waitress to the swanky hotel where the boss is installing her on the promise of an industry job. Jane takes her suspicions about this transaction to the jolly-faced HR manager (Matthew Macfadyen), though as soon as we see the set of clubs in his office it’s clear he won’t risk a nice game of golf, let alone his position, by pursuing her complaints.
Beastly-boss movies such as The Devil Wears Prada and Swimming with Sharks draw much of their energy from showing behaviour they affect to deplore but The Assistant, operating in a more serious register and with a minimalist aesthetic, works by suggestion alone. Green’s masterstroke is to keep Jane’s boss hidden from view, showing only the damage he causes and the detritus he leaves behind. Male production executives file out of his office, their pallor grey and their bones rattling, while young women enter and are never seen again. “Have you been to France?” we hear the boss ask off-screen, and an awestruck female voice admits she hasn’t.
Green’s documentary Casting JonBenét also had an intentional vacuum at its centre: the film was constructed from interviews with people auditioning to appear in a movie about a murdered child beauty pageant queen, though in fact there was no movie other than the documentary Green was making. From this emerged a portrait in relief of the victim, and of America’s ghoulish fascination with her. In the case of The Assistant, it’s not hard to guess the identity of the elephant in the room. (A clue: James Stewart’s imaginary rabbit had the same first name.) But Green, who thanks in the end credits “all those who shared their experiences”, is more interested in analysing the social structures rigged to permit, conceal and reward abuse than in portraying any single wrongdoer.
The physical absence of a bogeyman allows culpability to be shared in the movie among those who choose to keep mum, such as the seen-it-all older associate who notices Jane fretting over the latest young lamb offered up to be slaughtered and says: “Don’t worry, she’ll get more out of it than he will.” It takes a lot of people looking the other way for that level of harm to be rendered unremarkable. The question, still unanswered at the end of the movie, is whether Jane can carry on obediently printing out female head-shots by the dozen ready for men to rank them, rate them and worse.
“The Assistant” is streaming on Amazon, BFI Player, iTunes and other platforms from 1 May
The Assistant (15)
dir: Kitty Green
This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave