Rating: (3 stars)
Somewhere between a joke-free version of “Horrible Bosses” and a horror story lies “The Assistant,” an icky yet highly watchable workplace drama centering on a young woman who toils in the New York office of the chairman of a Miramax-like film production company that is haunted by an unseen presence.
The title character is Jane (Julia Garner), a 20-something who rises before dawn in Astoria, Queens for the privilege of sitting just outside the Manhattan inner sanctum of a plainly Harvey Weinstein-esque studio executive, where she handles scheduling and a host of other, more menial tasks.
Much of the film is taken up with scenes of her picking up the mess after meetings, like a maid. Jane works with two other young male assistants (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins), who treat her with what might be called genial misogyny. Under the guise of a patronizing collegiality, they offer Jane unsolicited advice, while making sure that their chores in the office are limited to more prestigious duties that don’t require picking up lunch for the office, or throwing away someone else’s uneaten muffins.
Although he is never named or even shown, and only overheard as a muffled, off-camera voice, communicating with Jane via email or phone, the villain of this piece is spoken about by his underlings in a way that delineates him as a kind of mundane monster: Whoever he is, he is manipulative, quick-to-anger, entitled, feared and — in ways that only gradually come into focus, over a fleet but nauseating
87 minutes — an abuser.
Two young women — one, a newly hired assistant (Kristine Froseth); the other, an actress pitching herself for a role (Makenzie Leigh) — are his putative victims.
But at its heart, “The Assistant” is a chamber piece about how Jane processes the misbehavior to which she concludes she is adjacent, and about which she might, as the film suggests, be mistaken. Neither Jane nor we ever really see anything conclusive. One excruciating scene features Jane complaining to an unctuous human resources officer (Matthew Macfadyen) about — well, what, exactly? That her boss has set up a new hire from out of town in a posh hotel, while she looks for an apartment in the city? That seems like a pretty good deal, and hardly actionable.
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” the H.R. guy tells Jane, in a chilling attempt to reassure her. “You’re not his type.”
Set over the course of a single, very long day, “The Assistant” derives almost all its quiet power from Garner, on whose face we see confusion congealing into concern. Hers is a performance entirely of reflection, in which the terrible things that seem to be happening around her only manifest themselves in her eyes.
That’s true, at least, up until the film’s final moments, in which writer-director Kitty Green (“Casting JonBenét”) shows us perhaps more than the film needs, through the half-closed Venetian blinds of the executive’s office, and as witnessed by Jane, from a coffee shop across the street.
It isn’t exactly explicit, but it’s pretty obvious what’s going on behind that window. But making it obvious, albeit ambiguous, is arguably a small misstep, in a film that otherwise derives all its sickening effectiveness not from what we see, but from what we don’t.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language. 87 minutes.