He is powerful, he is talked-about, he dictates everything that happens in “The Assistant.” He has created the toxic atmosphere that permeates every corner of the film.
And yet, he is never named, or even seen.
“He” is a Harvey Weinstein-like Hollywood producer, the much-feared lord of a production company. In “The Assistant,” we see his influence through the eyes of a secretary in his office, a young woman who survives a single stressful day in the orbit of this monster-mogul.
Jane (Julia Garner) occupies a very low rung on the ladder, yet sits outside the door of the man himself. She makes copies, she orders lunch, she books flights. And periodically she takes calls from the boss’s wife, during which Jane lies about where the boss is.
Jane herself is not being sexually harassed. “You’re not his type,” someone tells her. Helpful.
But on this day, she becomes concerned about a wide-eyed young movie hopeful from Idaho. This young woman has been flown in at the boss’s expense, put up at a fancy hotel, and will be visited by him in her room.
The queasy atmosphere of “The Assistant” is at its peak with this development. And yet the film, written and directed by Kitty Green, never speaks above a murmur. You get the feeling the boss’s influence is so pervasive, nobody dares raise their voice.
Green’s idea to leave the mogul off the screen — a brilliant concept — forces us to concentrate more intently on the effect of someone like this. People in the office communicate with eye rolls and tiny offers of advice, although the idea of sticking one’s neck out for a co-worker doesn’t fly in this fear-based unit.
At the heart of the film is a mesmerizing scene when Jane visits an HR manager (the excellent Matthew Macfadyen, Mr. Darcy in the 2005 “Pride & Prejudice”). He hears her concerns, and — with reassuring smile firmly pasted to his face — lets her understand that her career would be over if she ever said anything against the man in charge.
All of this is filtered through the carefully underplayed performance by Julia Garner (from TV’s “The Americans”). Her quiet presence makes Jane’s eventual plea to the HR guy seem like an explosion of nerve.
It’s hard to believe her wish to someday be a producer, because she doesn’t seem to have the oomph for it, or the fierceness. But maybe we don’t see those qualities because Jane has already been defeated — worn down by the dispiriting job of cleaning up the boss’s office after his liaisons and pretending not to notice when women go behind those doors for long meetings.
There will and should be movies made about Weinstein types, but “The Assistant” does something more interesting. By leaving that character out entirely, it gives us a clearer picture of the damage left in his wake. In this approach, his absence speaks volumes.
“The Assistant” (3½ stars)
A film about a Harvey Weinstein-like predator who never actually appears onscreen. We see the story through the eyes of a secretary (Julia Garner) who works in a production office where the boss’s habits have infected the entire place. It’s an ingenious strategy for telling a story about the toxic effect of one person. With Matthew Macfadyen.
Rating: R, for language, subject matter
Opening Friday: Pacific Place