The Assistant/The Royal Hotel

I saw this movie THE ROYAL HOTEL that came out on video last week, and I really liked it, so I watched the previous one by director Kitty Green, and that was even better. Let me tell you about them in this Kitty Green/Julia Garner Stressful Job Double Feature, presented in order of release.

THE ASSISTANT (2019) chronicles one day on the job for Jane (Julia Garner, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE), a junior assistant at a production company in New York City. It has a really engrossing fly-on-the-wall feel because it’s all presented very naturalistically, avoiding cinematic shortcuts, letting you piece together what’s happening instead of directly telling you. A more Hollywood version might have her narrating at the beginning about what a big deal her boss is, with a montage of camera flashes on a red carpet, fake magazine covers, she talks about dreaming of a dream job like this and wryly jokes about “What could possibly go wrong?” or whatever.

THE ASSISTANT doesn’t believe in that shit. It knows not to describe its world to us, but to just create it and drop us into it. I didn’t even know that her job was movie-related at first, it never tells us the name of the company, never lets us see the hot shit producer everyone walks on eggshells around or tells us his name. It kinda feels like we’re shadowing Jane for a day and we know better than to ask about that stuff.

She gets up early in the morning, barely stays awake through the long ride into town, turns the lights on, gets the coffee running, starts printing out reports. After she’s been there for a while it’s still dark outside. The geography of the building is unclear – there are different layers of employees that she intersects with, but her desk is in a small office she shares with two others, who are credited as Male Assistant 1 (Noah Robbins, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7) and Male Assistant 2 (Jon Orsini, BENEATH). They arrive later, greet her without much warmth, 1 says his weekend was “awesome.” He asks how hers was, because he forgot she was there working.

She’s only had this job for 5 weeks, but she really seems to have it down. She’s got a million little things to do: making calls to arrange flights and drivers to meet the people on the flights, copying passports, printing scripts and putting brads in them, printing stacks of headshots, getting the bottles of water, bringing mineral water and a glass into a meeting, talking to the driver who’s waiting outside worrying about traffic in the tunnel, ordering everyone’s lunches, making a protein shake and putting it on the desk in the boss’s empty office, filling a cabinet with syringes and a desk drawer with prescription pills, “tidying up” the office (which includes noticing two used syringes in the trash and taking them out to put in a bio-waste bag), lying to the boss’s wife on the phone about not knowing where he is, packing his bags for a trip, it just goes on and on.

There is some suspense about whether she’ll ever get a break or enough food. The most alone time she gets is in the tiny kitchen before everyone else gets there. She’s just started her bowl of Fruit Loops when some bigshots walk by having a loud conversation and she needs to dump it down the sink. I was so happy for her when she at least took a smoke break after the most harrowing scene. Then she goes back inside and gets in trouble.

There’s so much social awkwardness. Most of the people in the building don’t feel obligated to acknowledge her presence. There’s a funny moment when she’s silently accompanying a guy on the elevator, he’s just looking at his phone, he turns around and it’s an uncredited cameo by Patrick Wilson (AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM). I don’t know if he’s playing himself, but we can tell he’s a famous actor by his leather jacket/scarf combo.

There is a type of a camaraderie between her and her co-workers, but it’s more of a “we all have this job so we know how it is” than a friendship. Male Assistant 2 is nicer to her than Male Assistant 1, but neither talk to her much when they don’t need to.

They have seniority, but it seems like she has more responsibilities. Some jobs it’s just assumed are hers because she’s the woman: somebody hands kids to her to watch, while the boys stare at them from across the room like they’re strange animals. And Male Assistant 1 hands off all the angry calls from the boss’s wife, like it’s better for a woman to lie for him. He takes what seems to be a personal call, joking and laughing, while Jane takes over getting yelled at about the wife’s credit cards being cancelled. Then she gets yelled at by the boss about what she said while getting yelled at by the wife. Apparently the boss’s voice is Jay O. Sanders (V.I. WARSHAWSKI). We don’t hear him clearly, just that he sounds like a weirdo, and his calls end by instructing Jane to e-mail him a written apology. The other two are familiar with the routine, clearly having been through it themselves, but instead of directly offering sympathy they help by looking over her shoulder and suggesting things to add like “I appreciate the opportunity and won’t let you down again.”

There’s one guy played by Alexander Chaplin (Spin City) who she sees a few times in the day, he has a cubicle in a big room with other cubicles, he’s older and clearly much higher up in the company and their entire relationship seems to be that she has to tell him when the boss wants him to do something shitty (unexpectedly fly to L.A. tonight, tell some traveling VIPs that their meeting is cancelled). So she goes in there and doesn’t interrupt what he’s doing, stands in front of him until he addresses her with an exasperated “What?” that’s not directed at her but at the certainty that she’s not bringing good news.

Yes, the boss seems to be a Harvey Weinstein type. It’s unclear how much of his activities Jane has previously suspected, but her eyebrows raise along with ours when “new assistant” Sienna (Kristine Froseth, APOSTLE) shows up unexpectedly at the front desk. She’s very young, very pretty, he met her when she was waitressing at a conference in Boise, he’s putting her up at a fancy hotel, so Jane rides there with her.

“Is this where they put you when you started?” she asks Jane.


“Oh. Where’d they put you?”

“Um, they didn’t.”


This is one of the few scenes where we see a full conversation, and still everything is left unsaid. It almost seems like Sienna knows what’s going on. Then it seems like she has no clue. Jane seems to be perpetually on the edge of speaking up, but instead she goes along with it.

She gets teary more than once during the day, but she’s learning how to deaden her eyes and go to another place when the shit starts being flung at her. Her coworkers are more jaded, implying disapproval but resigned to grimly laughing about it and putting up with it. Saying never to sit on a certain couch, or complaining that meeting with an aspiring actress (Makenzie Leigh, BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK), who looks suspiciously like Sienna and will clearly be the boss’s next victim, is “a waste of my time.” When the boss is M.I.A. for a big meeting right after Sienna is dropped off at the hotel, someone says “This reminds me of that time in Cannes.” Bad enough to mystify everybody, but not unprecedented.

The one person who seems like they know they’re a villain is fucking Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen, THE THREE MUSKETEERS), some kind of H.R. guy in a separate building across the street. Jane puts on her big winter coat and scarf as emotional armor, gets up the guts to go tell him what she saw, and he offers the full range of terrible responses you would fear in your worst nightmares. He even talks up how hard she works, only to use against her, saying it’s stressing her out so she’s not seeing things straight. When she’s back in her office the boys stare at her, the phone rings, the boss knows what she did.

I believe the score by Tamar-kali (MUDBOUND) only comes in during the credits. Quiet is very important to the movie. You hear the tone of the other assistants’ phone conversations, or the self important higher ups passing in the hall or gathering in another office. Things get quiet and you hear everybody’s typing in the awkward time when Sienna is given a desk and everyone has to act like she’s actually being trained for a job.

There’s a recognizable way the male assistants unconsciously exclude Jane. They have a rapport from working together longer, or from both being dudes, they laugh at shit together and don’t answer when she asks them what it’s about. I think she’s surprised when they’re leaving and, as an after thought, #2 tells her where they’re going for dinner and drinks. I yearned for her to join them and have a less guarded conversation about everything, but she keeps working, and then I realized she has to stay hours later than they do. First to arrive, last to leave, not counting the two waiting outside for the boss to finish his sexual misconduct before they head to the airport with him.

This is a great film – a very simple approach to illustrating a very simple idea in a profound way. A truth we all know about, but laying it all out so plainly makes you feel like you understand it more deeply. And regardless of the things it has to say, the way it says them is hypnotic.

THE ASSISTANT’s realistic approach is no doubt influenced by Green’s past as a documentarian, having previously directed UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL (2013) and CASTING JONBENET (2017). Her second narrative film, THE ROYAL HOTEL (2023), takes some of the same themes into what has been labelled and promoted as a thriller, because it almost is. It’s about Americans (pretending to be Canadian) but it’s set in her native Australia. I’m gonna go ahead and call it THE ASSISTANT meets WAKE IN FRIGHT.

Julia Garner (SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR) stars again, still the center of the movie but with support from Jessica Henwick, who I always describe to people as “Bugs from THE MATRIX” before realizing that most people don’t care enough about THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS to remember it introduced a cool blue-haired resistance fighter named Bugs. They play Hanna and Liv, two American friends on a backpacking trip. Green’s immersive filmatism is immediately apparent when they’re on a crowded dance floor, the strobe lights are blinding and the music makes it hard to hear the guys hitting on them, like you’re really there. Then they go out the exit and up some stairs and surprisingly not only is it day time, but they’re on a boat.

I find it hard not to like any character played by Henwick (LOVE AND MONSTERS), but you gotta admit Liv is kind of a pain in the ass, causing the whole movie by running out of money on the boat and convincing Hanna that it would be a great adventure to take the only job a temp agency can find them on short notice, as bartenders at a pub in a mining town out in the middle of Fucking Nowhere, The Outback.

It viscerally captures the feeling of arriving for the first day of a job and wondering what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into. The pub is owned by loutish Billy (Hugo Weaving, from all the MATRIXes except the one with Bugs) and his take-no-shit wife Carol (Ursula Yovich, JINDABYNE). The living quarters are a shithole, they can barely get the shower to work, and when they do Billy runs in calling them the c-word and turns it off for reasons that are unintelligible. Nice way to meet the new boss.

The actual job is way less complicated than being THE ASSISTANT, other than remembering which color of button on the beat-to-shit cash register represents which type of beer. But the threat and hostility are a little more up front. The customers love throwing casual misogyny at them or talking down to them, and even when everyone’s being nice it’s so loud, they’re so outnumbered, and they’re so small and cute and so unable to leave until they get paid.

Each of them has a particular regular who becomes fixated on them. Liv has Teeth (James Frecheville, ANIMAL KINGDOM, THE DROP, THE DRY), a quiet guy with a scar on his head, and possibly brain damage. He’s sometimes very helpful but also full of rage, and even if he wasn’t she wouldn’t be comfortable with him asking her out. When she turns him down he walks out and she feels sorry for him until he rams his truck into Billy’s trailer.

Hanna has a guy who seems closer to her age, Matty (Toby Wallace, FINESTKIND, THE BIKERIDERS), who’s a real dick to her, but eventually they go on a day trip with him just because she’s been dying to go swimming. Seems like a terrible idea and I was tense the whole time but they develop a friendship, tested but not destroyed when she kicks him out at night. One thing I really like about this movie is that there are these guys who are sexist assholes and (in the case of Billy) terrible bosses, but you do get to see something kinda charming about them too, the way someone who’s obnoxious might partly grow on you when you have to be around them all the time for a job. But also these guys have to recognize that Hanna and Liv can choose to be friends with them or not and don’t owe them anything.

I felt sorry for most of these shitheads, the exception being Dolly (Daniel Henshall, THE BABADOOK, OKJA), a creep who’s always staring at Hanna and one night stumbles drunkenly upstairs to their living quarters after the bar is closed.

Carol offers more kinship to Hanna and Liv than anybody in THE ASSISTANT did. She feels an obligation to stand up for her fellow women as well as her fellow Aboriginal, Tommy (Baykali Ganambarr, THE NIGHTINGALE), a delivery driver Billy owes a bunch of money to. Carol puts her foot down and demands he pay everybody what they’re owed, but she can’t control him.

In one sense this is more upbeat than THE ASSISTANT: Hanna has her friend with her, they are able to have fun and laugh sometimes. Hanna is always the more responsible one, and more reluctant to get drunk and fuck around, which means she also ends up doing more work and being resentful about it. But also she’ll join in sometimes and that doesn’t always end up being a bad thing.

On the other hand, having this friend leads to feelings of betrayal when Liv invariably takes the threats less seriously than Hanna, tells her to lighten up, or to be nicer to Dolly – a guy who gets Liv wasted on her birthday and tries to drive off with her until Hanna rescues her with an ax.

I had seen this called a thriller, so I was waiting for it to turn into some kind of cat and mouse or siege or murder type situation, but also just the story of Hanna trying to hold her head high and get something positive out of this job from hell was so involving I kept thinking it was a shame it couldn’t just be about that. And actually it pretty much is! There are scares, physical danger and mayhem, but it stays very grounded and authentic even when the tension is ratcheted up by Hanna and Liv being left to run the place on their own for a few days.

Green had a co-writer for this one, Oscar Redding (VAN DIEMEN’S LAND), and I’ve just now learned that it’s based on a 2016 documentary called HOTEL COOLGARDIE, about a pub that rotates pairs of female backpackers (in this case Finnish) as their bartenders to be relentlessly harassed by the customers.

I loved THE ROYAL HOTEL and then THE ASSISTANT was even better, so it worked well to watch them in backwards order. But I can also see the advantage of going the other way. These are dramas, not genre films, they lean more toward reality than normal beginning-middle-end stories. The protagonists have no recourse for their situations, they are not heroes who are going to save the day or triumph over adversity any more than just getting through another day. But in THE ROYAL HOTEL Green does treat us to a little indulgence at the very end, one little flourish beyond the limitations of what you or I would be willing to do in the situation (or what probly happened in the documentary). It would be even more cathartic coming after THE ASSISTANT.

THE ASSISTANT and THE ROYAL HOTEL are great from top to bottom, but obviously Garner has to be singled out for being so excellent in both, a strong presence in a small body, standing up under unrelenting pressure, hitting ‘em with a masterful I’m Putting Up With Your Shit For Now But I’m Not Gonna Pretend I Like It face. I strongly recommend these two movies, and I look forward to whatever Kitty Green does next, whether or not it completes the Julia’s Jobs Trilogy.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 16th, 2024 at 7:14 am and is filed under Reviews, Drama. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

3 Responses to “The Assistant/The Royal Hotel”

  1. I love bits in movies and TV shows where we just see people go about their day and do specific jobs or tasks, so weirdly that was my favorite part of THE ASSISTANT. Julia Garner was great, and it has a lot to say while always talking around what it’s really about. A little slow and lugubrious, but good control of tone and some great micro-expression acting. Not my usual kind of thing, but I’m glad I checked it out and I’ll have to keep an eye out for ROYAL HOTEL.

  2. I haven’t seen THE ASSISTANT, and I feel like I don’t have to after reading this review, I feel like I get the point, I don’t think that would be an enjoyable or fulfilling use of an hour-and-a-half of my time. I did see THE ROYAL HOTEL, though, and I had the contrary opinion to this review. I *did* want it to become more of a thriller and I was let down that it never did. I see the value and the artistry in movies that just kind of luxuriate in bad vibes (or any kind of vibe, really, but bad in this case) and have little-to-no incident — they are just not for me, I don’t want to spend my time on them. I do feel like the advertising for THE ROYAL HOTEL tricked me in this case. I wish I read this review first.

  3. a pub that rotates pairs of female backpackers (in this case Finnish) as their bartenders to be relentlessly harassed by the customers.

    This is a weird phenomena that started in the ’80s. When I was a kid, a barkeep was always male because they had to deal with big, drunk, surly, assholes on a daily basis. Then suddenly, owners discovered the concept of the ‘bar bunny’ (as it seems to be called in the industry. As in ‘playboy’). Because the honey of a cute female attracts more customers than the vinegar of a big dude.

    Even in Vern’s neck of the woods, not just the outback. I remember poking my head into a wharf bar during the daylight (6am) shift, and seeing it packed with fisherman who have been at sea for a month, flush with cash, and looking to get HAMMERED. Behind the bar? A 5’3″ 100lb 22-year-old in a super-low-cut belly shirt. You could only imagine the treatment she was getting.

    The kicker being, when I asked if there was anyway else there she responded “Uh, the manager usually gets here at 10…”. Only four hours.

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