A finalist from the first round of voting in the poll to select what 2020 indie film I should watch and review next. Vote in that and the other polls if you want to control my, and the website's fate

I would like to start by pushing back against the idea that The Assistant, the first narrative feature directed by experimental documentarian Kitty Green, is "about" disgraced former movie mogul and present convicted sex criminal Harvey Weinstein. This in fact seems to me very much against the point of the movie: if we say, Ah, it's crypto-Weinstein, or Ah, it's a metaphor for Weinstein, or even something as simple as Ah, it was inspired by Weinstein, all of which are claims I've seen in reviews, we are at least somewhat doing the work of suggesting that Weinstein was some kind of unmatched aberration. The film's suggestion is very much the opposite: that Weinstein types are all over, and just because one of them got caught out in a uniquely visible way, that's no brake on the abuses perpetrated by the rest of them. Obviously, The Assistant was facilitated by the media discourse the Weinstein affair kicked off, but it's looking at a culture, not a man.

The other reason I object to saying that the film is "about" Weinstein, or even "about" its own nameless, unseen Him, only ever encountered as a muffled, screaming voice on the phone, is because it's actually about Jane (Julia Garner), and we should, I think, pay Green and Garner the respect of not taking that away from the movie. Jane is the assistant of the title, a reasonably new employee at the New York office of a major media company ("almost two months", she says optimistically at one point, only to be cut down by a patronising HR manager played with maxed-out patrician condescension by Matthew Macfadyen, who retorts that it has only been five weeks). She's on the bottom rung of the ladder, which means she's the one who has to drag herself to Manhattan from Astoria at some inhumane hour of the pre-dawn morning (she's the one who has to get the office ready for the other poor drones who have to show up before sunrise - that low on the ladder), and her two male office mates happily dump all of the shittiest jobs on her, like handling the boss's irate wife when the boss is busy screwing one of the, presumably, many beautiful young women he's promised a career boost in exchange for sex. Not that anybody would put it like that, of course: there's a pretty strong omertà around doing any more than allude to the boss's bad behavior, and even those allusions are pretty muted.

The film takes place over the course of one shitty, shitty day in Jane's shitty, shitty life, day marked out from all the other shitty days because she spends about an hour in the middle of it trying to work up the bravery to try and put a stop to this before immediately caving once her shitty, shitty job is held over her head. It is both a character study and a horror story of the most visceral, skin-crawling sort. Even before we get the slightest indication that this is going to be a gutting depiction of one woman's inability to do a damn thing about the system of abuse all around her, it's already been a pretty revolting portrait of the horrible lot of the precariously-employed. The film's portrait of the office where Jane grinds out her days is an unforgiving, unpleasant one, dominated by some hellaciously good sound design. The film is saturated with offscreen sounds of the constant thrumming activity of office work, phones and mumbling conversations and quiet but maddeningly persistent drone of computer monitors and fluorescent lighting. It founds like shoving your head into a beehive, with all the constant business and likelihood of being stung to death that entails, and it's quite sufficient to make the film a nervous, twitchy experience before we've seen one image or heard one line of dialogue.

Mind you, the images are doing quite a lot all on their own. Green and cinematographer Michael Latham do fantastic things with the soulless, vaguely urban-loft-looking office setting, positioning the camera to turn every doorway and pane of glass into an iron box that chops the space into tiny little rectangular prisons. The film also employs a one-two punch of deep focus and low lighting that makes the whole murky space seem to crush on us all at once. In concert with the all-out assault of the soundtrack, the mercilessly squared-off compositions are a great way to instill the most irresistible feeling of nauseated anxiety that neatly evokes the constant ball-of-stress-in-your-stomach feeling that working in a place like that entails, where every single interaction is a carefully micro-managed bit of office politicking and one wrong breath is enough to end your career right then and there, and even the "nice" people who act "friendly" are actively working to uphold that entire ecosystem of alert paranoia.

This is especially true given that the only respite the film gives us from these implacably geometric compositions come when it pushes itself right in front of Jane's face and watches her twist and squirm in a state of miserable, self-loathing panic. Thanks to Garner's excellent subdued performance, the whole movie resides inside Jane's brain, as she watches her own complicity with the boss's acts and realises to her pain and disgust that she probably can't and definitely won't put up a fuss - she is, after all, "not his type", and therefore safe, and it's kind of miraculous to see how Garner lets this crop up as both jealousy and relief when she's put in face-to-face contact with the company's newest hire and soon-to-be-victim, and then to see her profound guilt at having both of those reactions, and doing all of this basically through nothing other than her posture while sitting in the back seat of a car. Watching her face as she swallows down one wave of disgust after the next is as viscerally horrifying as it gets.

All of this is very small and inward-looking and potent, and The Assistant in general plays things in an awfully subdued register: the score and close-ups are too aggressive for me to feel comfortable calling it minimalism per se, but it's certainly a minimalist screenplay. And of course it has to be, given that the whole point of the thing is that everybody in the movie knows exactly what's happening and nobody will say a word about it. Sullen minimalism is basically the only option available, under those circumstances.

For a while, this works pretty well. The script is never the film's strong suit, though there are individually excellent scenes, such as a pair of moments where Jane's office mates help her compose a groveling, self-debasing e-mail, and everybody involved apparently thinks this is good, kind solidarity, rather than an orgy of sacrificing everybody's dignity on the altar of employment. And by keeping the focus so intently on Jane's emotions as all this is playing out, the film can get away with a whole lot of subdued anti-drama. Maybe not the whole 87 minutes worth of subdued anti-drama that the film has in mind; the last third of the film gets so shaggy and shapeless that it's hard not to get a little antsy wanting some kind of storytelling momentum, even if the shagginess is truer to the aimless misery that the film is depicting. Still, a little nitpick here or there is hardly enough to distract from the film's grueling power, the impeccable form that goes into generating that power, or the superb central performance that anchors this all in identifiable human feeling. The Assistant is a hard, nerve-wracking watch, but it earns every bit of it.