My very first job interview when I moved to New York twenty years ago was to be the personal assistant to an award-winning and highly respected to this day movie producer whose name you most certainly know. (No, not that one.) It remains the strangest job interview I’ve ever had — it was at a bar, it was with one of this producer’s other assistants, and it lasted all of two minutes. I clearly wasn’t right the second I was met. I never knew what standard I didn’t live up to by just existing, but I thought about that interview the second that director Kitty Green’s The Assistant, starring a revelatory Julia Garner, began, and I breathed deep sighs of relief over a life that went un-lived by its end.
Did I just say that Julia Garner is revelatory? That term’s probably a bit short-sighted, seeing as how I’ve been reveling in Garner for the entire past decade — her role was small (but notable) in Martha Marcy May Marlene in 2011 so it was really two years later, in Jim Mickle’s spectacularly underrated American remake of the Mexican cannibal-family epic We Are What We Are, that she took hold. Since then she’s had more chances to shine on TV in things like Ozark and The Americans, although she more than held her own opposite Lily Tomlin’s career-capping work in Grandma in 2015. But this movie, the one we’re here to talk today, is where it feels like a movie finally knows what its got with her.
The Assistant just watches her. It’s just short of ninety minutes that feel very nearly entirely trained on her face in close-up, her body language, so petite and folding into itself under the weight of every pointedly bland frame. Her diet-yogurt hued sweater top bleeding into the upholstery, her usual frizz-mop of bleached curls reined defiantly, sadly, down onto her head, Garner is a master-class in trying and failing to disappear. She squirms under the camera, against its glass.
Her character, aptly named Jane — the Doe is assumed; no room on the name-tag for such formalities — has been working for this Harvey Weinstein type for a couple of months. Her job is to do all of the work without ever being noticed. She shows up before everyone else — the film opens with a sharp montage of travel from outer boroughs to inner, crap Queens dumpster fires to Tribeca’s billionaire barrens — and leaves after them, one hundred thousand hours later or perhaps that same night, sweeping up crumbs and matrimonial histrionics with hopefully the same nonexistent brush of the hand. Its as if the crumbs and the divorce papers never really existed, as long as she’s on her game. God help her if she isn’t.
This day, she isn’t. Green’s camera presses in, and like an organism under observation everything feels changed, even though we can only assume the beforehand. We watch Jane relentlessly, hawk-eyed, doing her banal duties, and Garner’s performance grows increasingly, microscopically, unsettled. Something is amiss. The ruthlessness of Green’s cold observation, closing off Garner’s every escape, feels meaningful, especially to one who’s worked under such claustrophobic conditions — the film never gives her a second’s relief. A sparring scene with her company’s Human Resources head (played with smarmily incisive cruelty by Matthew Macfadyen) heaves itself over its finish line by what goes unsaid, nothing left but a gutted corpse of good intentions. There’s barely a whiff of catharsis in Garner’s tightly-controlled performance — when a tear falls, as it must, you can practically see her willing it legs to crawl its damned self right back up her cheek. But that barely suppressed fury and impotence and total emotional and intellectual defeat radiates off her all the same with what can only be called, even here in its very first month, one of 2020’s to-be great performances. Garner is a fire so cold she turned my veins to ice.
The Assistant will be released by Bleecker Street on January 31, 2020.
Jason knew the movies were his bag the second he saw that lawyer sitting on a toilet getting eaten by a Tyrannosaur, and he’s never looked back once since. Simultaneously a movie snob who watches Fassbinder for fun while also being a trash apologist prone to reenacting the death scenes in the Friday the 13th series through vivid pantomime, he’s got room for everything projected onto a big screen in his big roomy heart. He’s been covering the daily beat on his site My New Plaid Pants since 2005 and is a regular contributor to The Film Experience. He’s a member of GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and has been accredited to cover basically every New York City based film festival for the past ten years including NYFF and Tribeca. You can follow him on Twitter at @JAMNPP.