For much of its running time, The Assistant is devoted to routine. Kitty Green’s new film is short, quiet, and often monotonous, focusing on the mundane tasks that make up a workday for Jane (Julia Garner). She makes coffee, answers emails, and washes dishes; she arrives at the crack of dawn to clean out her boss’ office, down to the mysterious stains on his couch. Many of the requirements of her position are implicit; she has to be the first one in to work and the last one out, simply because that’s what’s expected of someone with her junior status. That’s also why she has to keep her mouth shut. Jane’s job is to assist an unnamed mogul of a production company who is an obvious stand-in for Harvey Weinstein, and whom the viewer experiences only indirectly. He’s a lurking silhouette, an angry voice on the phone, and the writer of a mean-sounding, all-caps email. He’s clearly up to something terrible, but it’s hard to tell what exactly that might be. As a result, The Assistant is a horror movie of a Kafkaesque extent: Jane’s workday is boring yet creepy, a series of menial chores in services of a person so monstrous the camera literally cannot face him.
This cinematic device might take some a while to get used to, but that’s what Green wants. Her comfort with challenging and alienating her audience translates very well from her background in nonfiction filmmaking to the sphere of fiction filmmaking. Though it’s only eighty-five minutes long, the movie is an heir to Chantal Akerman’s historic three-hour-and-forty-eight-minute Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a masterpiece grounded in ordinary, repetitive responsibilities that slowly build toward something ghastly. In following Jane’s dreary days on the job, Green is asking a question that has reverberated in the media since the dawn of the #MeToo movement: How could the employees of alleged abusers like Weinstein not have had some idea of what was going on — and how could they continue their work without saying or doing anything?
That notion of performing errands to support some shapeless evil suffuses the film, although it doesn’t ever fully surface. Green has crafted a tight, office-bound world so ambiguous that the moments when she reveals its dynamics directly sometimes come off as disconcerting. It’s more unsettling to watch Jane write a cloying email to her angry boss after some nebulous offense. Her predicament makes all the more sense when the viewer realizes how few details she’s actually sure about. Garner is an outstanding core for the movie, perfectly calibrating each secretive glance and reaction to every subtle slight. She has no big speeches, no tantrums, no floods of tears. It’s the ultimate unshowy role, and will remain as one of the year’s finest performances.
Eventually, The Assistant builds to a sort of climax with a meeting between Jane and an HR representative (a sinuous Matthew Macfadyen). Their brutally compelling exchange, which finally voices some of the unspoken truths of the movie, makes for a terrific ending. Unfortunately, this scene doesn’t come quite at the end; the closing minutes see a little more action that veers toward overstating the film’s themes. But those flaws are outweighed by The Assistant‘s atmosphere — a crushing sense of dread that will resonate for weeks after you’ve seen the film. Perceptive but not always fully insightful, The Assistant still steadily remains a somber, horrifying, Kafkaesque procedural of what moment-by-moment abuse actually looks like.
The Last Thing He Wanted
If a question mark was incarnated into (weak) cinematic form it would be The Last Thing He Wanted: Dee Rees’ muddled, half-baked political thriller. Many thoughts will go through one’s head during Rees’ Joan Didion adaptation, but one specific one comes to mind about forty minutes in: This movie, this assemblage of scenes and disappearing plotlines and characters in different kinds of mid-Reagan-era attire, is supposed to be a thriller. In fact, the film has already offered up conspiracies, gunshots, journalists in peril, and a few other staples of the genre. But it takes the sight of Anne Hathaway in the classic movie disguise of a headscarf and oversized sunglasses and a bungled suspense sequence set in a Pan Am Clipper Lounge for the realization to sink in that this dud isn’t just going nowhere. It’s trying to get pulses pounding with the innate rhythmic sense of a vacuum.
Centering on Hathaway’s central journalist, Elena, under geopolitical turmoil and intrigue, Rees and Marco Villalobos’ screenplay’s largest concern throughout is probably its plotting, which is indecipherable and choppy with serious undeveloped, underexplored areas. Elena, as we are first introduced to her, is a reporter for the Central American desk of a fictional newspaper called The Atlantic Post (The Washington Post in the novel). It’s 1984, and she has returned from El Salvador only to get reassigned to covering the Reagan reelection campaign. Then her semi-estranged father, Richard (Willem Dafoe), a shady Florida operator in the early stages of dementia, ends up in the hospital. He owes half a million to some even shadier operators who fronted it for a deal than he can no longer go through with on his own. Which is how Elena becomes a gunrunner.
Hathaway’s performance is probably pretty good. At the very least it seems overqualified. But our sense of Elena as a character is lost in some unbelievably ugly editing. One might make the case that some of The Last Thing He Wanted is meant to approximate Didion’s prose, namely in those instances where takes of extended duration appear to cover multiple paragraphs of wordless script action. But a lot of it is simply pointless, with camera angles and cut points that appear to have been picked at random; one obvious example is a scene of Elena and Richard sitting and talking at a bar that is chopped together from no fewer than fifteen setups (or angles), most of them as redundant as calling the Sahara, “the Sahara desert.” In the context of suspense, however, Rees’ indifference of consistencies of perspective and matters of visual pacing is more or less disastrous, especially considering that The Last Thing He Wanted features multiple changes in location and a lot of intercutting, frequently leaving Elena’s point-of-view to follow her colleague Alma (Rosie Perez) and a U.S. official named Treat Morrison (a charmless, phoning-it-in Ben Affleck). Mostly, the film just relies on hack moves: echoy flashbacks; piano-arpeggio montages of pieces falling into place that are puzzling because the pieces haven’t been previously introduced.
Yet with all that, what makes The Last Thing He Wanted ultimately so frustrating is the fact that there are things it does well. Most of it comes down to having a more thoughtful attitude to the kinds of things that movies of the this type never give a second thought: the realities and anxieties of Elena’s life in the mid-1980s as a divorced parent with a demanding career and a breast cancer survivor who went through a mastectomy; insecurities about motherhood, womanhood, and professional ambition. Its portrayal of media in the widely mythologized era of smoky newsrooms, telexes, electric typewriters, and touch tone phones is refreshingly free of solo stop-the-presses heroics. And Rees’ depiction of the Reagan era as a dark deceptive period feels like a welcome corrective to our seemingly endless addiction to rosy, suburban ’80s nostalgia. This all contributes to the impression that the director’s interest in the project came down to just about everything except the plot. Which is understandable given the source material, but doesn’t excuse the fact that The Last Thing He Wanted sputters on most of the basic terms it sets for itself. Still, there is at least some virtue to its failure.
The Last Thing He Wanted is available to stream on Netflix (in the U.S.)