The shark in “Jaws” was never more frightening than in scenes in which we never actually saw it.
The demon in “Paranormal Activity” announced its presence via slamming doors, flickering lights, jangling keys and late-night screeches.
In films such as “Signs” and “The Quiet Place,” the less we see of the mysterious beasts, the more we’re freaked out.
And so it goes with the monster in writer-director Kitty Green’s “The Assistant.” He’s an abusive, predatory, porcine, all-powerful movie studio chief who is never seen.
We hear his muffled voice on the telephone as he screams at an underling. We see a manipulative email he has sent to someone he has just eviscerated. We catch a glimpse of shadowy movement through a window, indicating the monster is having his way with another young actress he has lured into his clutches.
To say this unseen jerk is inspired by Harvey Weinstein would be an understatement. It’s a fictional character — and yet it’s clearly based on Weinstein.
The growling voice heard on the aforementioned phone calls. The small piles of food droppings on the executive’s desk, indicative of his gross eating habits. The arrival of a shipment of penile injection needles. The mogul putting up a young woman at a luxury hotel and disappearing in the middle of a business day to visit her …
All of it is so Harvey-esque, aka horrific and nauseating, as this unseen predator and verbal abuser infuses those around him with a gnawing sense of dread.
Julia Garner (“Ozark”) gives a beautifully controlled, nuanced and quietly powerful performance as Jane, a recent Northwestern grad who has landed a coveted position as an assistant in the New York offices of an unnamed, prestigious movie studio.
Well. She’s really an assistant to a couple of other assistants, who have moved one rung up the company ladder and exert their tiny pockets of power over Jane by throwing wadded-up balls of paper in her direction, forcing her to take calls from the boss’ furious wife and sending her out to fetch lunch.
“The Assistant” takes place over the course of one long Monday.
It’s still dark when Jane arrives at work, turns on the lights, starts the coffee pot, etc., in the spacious but gloomy workplace. (Other than the framed film posters lining the hallways, it looks like a million other nondescript, mildly depressing offices.)
As Jane goes about the mundane tasks of the day — printing copies of a new draft of a screenplay, coordinating the boss’ trip that evening to Los Angeles — she’s virtually invisible to her co-workers. (In one perfectly executed scene, Jane is in the office kitchen, washing the coffee cups, when two women enter in mid-conversation. They never acknowledge Jane. Still talking to one another, they casually dump their plates on the counter next to the sink. Jane silently starts cleaning their dirty dishes.)
But Jane’s duties expand far beyond (and below) the norms for an entry-level job. She scrubs a disgusting stain from the mogul’s sofa. She retrieves an earring from the carpet in his office. She’s tasked with babysitting a very young waitress (Kristine Froseth) from Idaho who met the mogul at a conference and apparently received a job offer from him. She’s put in the position of having to lie to the boss’ wife about his whereabouts.
It’s as if she’s in a house with 100 other people, but she’s the only one acknowledging the house is haunted and the demon is just around the corner.
Jane protects herself by saying as little as possible and putting her head down like a servant when mid-level execs roar past. She’s only five weeks into this job, and she knows there are a hundred other applicants who would kill for the position, and she doesn’t want to make trouble.
Until something inside of Jane compels her to take action, and she meets with the head of HR (Matthew Macfadyen from “Succession”), a smiling barracuda who flicks away Jane’s case against the boss like it’s a piece of lint on his shoulder, and sends her scurrying back to her job, feeling foolish and demeaned for speaking out.
Even with a running time of just 87 minutes, “The Assistant” is a slow build, as writer-director Green alternates between scenes drumming home the monotony of Jane’s jobs with those horrific moments when the unseen monster bares his teeth. But even in most of the slowest, seemingly throwaway scenes, we’re seeing (through Jane’s eyes) how the entire workplace atmosphere has been poisoned with an air of compliance and denial and look-the-other-way.
No blood is shed. No bodies turn up. And yet “The Assistant” is one seriously chilling monster movie.