The Assistant is a film that provokes a visceral physical reaction; the churning of the stomach, the gritting of the teeth, the white-knuckle gripping of a seat edge. It has malevolent monsters and horrified victims, and hums with a palpable sense of threat. It is, without doubt, a horror movie. Yet, while writer/director Kitty Green’s sensitively-made yet hard-hitting feature debut plays out in a dark, cold world full of secrets, lies and isolation, hers is no nightmarish fantasy landscape. Instead, she deftly — and devastatingly — lays bare the all-too-familiar fears that come with being made to feel like a voiceless, helpless, insignificant woman in an aggressively male environment.
For all its longevity and tradition, the western is a genre that responds well to reinvention. Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room (2014), for example, is among the handful to be told from the female experience, while Patrick Hughes’ Red Hill (2010) is one of many to transplant the template to modern times and other countries. And while Chinese-born writer/director Chloe Zhao hasn’t attempted to turn the genre entirely on its head, her sophomore feature The Rider does reshape the traditional cowboy narrative in a way that both embraces and challenges western tropes.
[Note: This review contains spoilers]
Ancient tradition and modern capitalism collide in this striking, and strikingly confident, debut feature from Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni, who draws on her dual background to craft a tale rich in murky superstition and clear-eyed social commentary. It is set in the small communities around Zambia’s capital Lusaka, whose inhabitants wear modern clothes, listen to Western music and place great faith in old ideas of spirits and witchcraft.