It’s telling, perhaps, that the first big-screen dramatization of the Harvey Weinstein scandal doesn’t feature Harvey Weinstein at all. Not once over the course of the film is that name uttered. In fact, no one calls the character, a high-powered executive who looms over his movie studio like an ornery emperor, by any name. He is just “Him,” godlike in the instant recognition the pronoun elicits. Maybe it’s too soon to expect the movie business to look directly at a man whose alleged abuses it collectively sanctioned. Here he is abstracted into a concept: the great shame of a whole industry, the elephant in the room everyone ignored.
We never see Him, either. He is always unavailable, in a meeting, at a screening. He is a disembodied voice on a telephone line, barking orders and insults. He is a stern sentence in an email, reprimanding from afar. As its title indicates, The Assistant looks at a powerful serial abuser—at the patterns of exploitation, at the network of enablers he builds around himself over several decades—through the at-once limited and privileged perspective of someone very low on the totem pole of his empire. Her name is Jane (Julia Garner, Emmy-winning costar of Ozark) and for 87 minutes, we’re immersed in her professional world, a mundane and exhausting and sometimes degrading series of routines through which the undeniable evidence of transgression emerges.
Perhaps dramatization is the wrong word. The Assistant is more of a spartan procedural, its narrative a methodical accounting of one day—typical in incident, atypical in dawning realization—for an entry-level employee at the New York production house of a Weinstein-like figure. “First in, last out,” Jane is shown, in the wordless opening passage, climbing into a car in the dark early hours of the morning, making the long commute from Astoria to the cluttered Manhattan office building where she toils tirelessly seven days a week. We’ll see her turn on lights and electronics, open bottles of water, take phone calls, unclog printers, sign for packages, book flights and hotels, even babysit the children of women who come to meet with Him behind closed doors.
Speaking of which, it’s made clear early on that Jane is not one of the many this faceless mogul has taken lecherous advantage of. (“You’re not his type,” someone callously sneers at her at one point.) She is, instead, a cog in the machine that allows that behavior to continue; the quid pro quo of their relationship is built on the expectation of unquestioning loyalty and of looking the other way. But it’s hard to ignore the full picture of what’s going on when your duties include printing mysterious checks with no names on them, retrieving earrings found in the cushions of casting couches, and—in what amounts to the inciting incident of this stripped-bare story—making hotel arrangements for the young Hollywood hopeful He plucks out of middle-American obscurity.
Kitty Green, the writer and director, flirted with dramatic techniques in her last film, the disquieting documentary Casting JonBenet. She similarly blurs lines with The Assistant, her narrative debut, which applies nonfiction values—an observational remove, research-abetted specificity of detail—to material that’s “fictional” but never sensationalized. To watch the film is to get an institutional sense of how a powerful predator operates; what Green achieves is something like a blueprint of the inner workings of an empire, demonstrating how someone like Weinstein could use the promise of career advancement to make those on his payroll unofficial accomplices. Not that the filmmaker lets anyone off the hook: The film’s desk jockeys may be “just following orders,” but plenty are more gleeful than anguished in their bystanding, cracking jokes about what a one-on-one with the boss really means. Some are model soldiers, beholden to the chain of command; there’s a truly masterful, devastating scene with Matthew Macfadyen as an HR rep who skillfully gaslights Jane after she musters the courage to raise concerns about what she sees. (Meanwhile, a dialogue-free cameo by Patrick Wilson, standing in for any and every actor that benefited from working with Weinstein, speaks volumes about silence.)
Most fascinatingly, The Assistant doesn’t spare its heroine blame. Green puts us on Jane’s side immediately by depicting through her eyes the nitty gritty of this tough profession—by showing us the sexism of the boys’ club, the impossible positions (like being asked to cover for Him when his wife calls), even just the minor frustrations of a shit-trickling-down post at the ground floor of a corporation. (The film doubles as a relatable portrait of working at any shitty job where you’re underpaid, under-appreciated, and subject to the stresses of a hostile work environment.) Yet as Jane gains a deeper understanding of what her job truly entails, Green zeroes in on her complicity, as someone made to understand the career consequences of speaking out. And the film even dares to imply a queasy mix of emotions in her reaction to the “hiring” of a very young Idaho transplant, her genuine concern for the woman’s wellbeing colliding with something a little like resentment towards her lack of qualifications. (Garner, so good in her recurring role on The Americans, is crucial to the film’s tricky ambivalence; she’s a sympathetic cipher.)
There’s no inspirational upshot to The Assistant. This is not a loosely fictionalized version of the story of how Weinstein was finally toppled, bolstering the #MeToo movement three years ago. It’s more like the story of why it took so long—how people averted their eyes because there was money to be made and too much risk in taking a stand. By the end, you begin to see a moral clarity, not timidity, in keeping the Harvey proxy completely off screen. His structural absence, the way he exists just beyond the gaze of the camera, speaks to how everyone in the real Weinstein’s radius—most of Hollywood, really—was able to keep unpleasant open secrets out of sight and out of mind. But it also spreads around the responsibility for the unchecked indulgence of appetites. Weinstein may be out of the industry and mostly out of the public eye. But he’s left behind a whole lot of witnesses, however conflicted.