Even if you just casually browse news or social media, one would be hard pressed NOT to hear any of the drama about this movie. I tried to tune it out but it’s virtually impossible. Well, in an industry where there’s no such thing as bad publicity, Olivia Wilde‘s sophomore effort could practically market itself thanks to all the hype surrounding it– from on-set dalliance, director-actress feud, spitgate, etc., etc. But at the end of the day, regardless of all the controversies, any film ought to be judged on its own merit.
Set in the 1950s, Don’t Worry Darling opens with a house party where everyone is having a good time. All decked out in their best cocktail attire, they’re all chugging endless champagne as they dance and schmooze jubilantly. We’re first introduced to its lead, Alice (Florence Pugh) as she is balancing drinks on a tray on top of her head. She’s able to do so for a bit, but then something knocks it over and all the drinks crash and shatter to the floor. It seems like a common thing that happens at a party, but that incident seems to be a harbinger of things to come.
In Victory, an idyllic utopian company town in California, the sun is always shining and the grass and gardens are always meticulously kept. All the husbands work for a mysterious company led by an enigmatic man name Frank (Chris Pine) while the wives spend their days cleaning their homes while their husbands are away, then cook and make love to their men when they return. Everyone can pretty much have whatever their heart desires–nice cars, beautiful houses, gorgeous dresses–so long as they follow company rules and most of all, stay within the border of the town. It’s Stepford Wives meet Black Mirror meets The Truman Showas well as a bunch of other distopia-type films where nothing is ever what it seems.
Anything that looks and feels too good to be true usually means the opposite. Alice is plagued with nightmares and hallucinations that grow more and more disturbing, and after a curious incident involving a fellow housewife, she begins to get more suspicious about what it is her husband Jack (Harry Styles) actually does in the company. Alice’s suspicion continues to mount that she even go so far as breaking the biggest rule of them all, thus creating tension within the community.
There are certainly a plethora of intriguing ideas in Don’t Worry Darling, though we’ve likely seen them before in other shows and movies. But old concepts can still feel fresh and new if handled properly, but here, most of the ideas just pile up on top of one another that none gets fully developed. It’s clear that Wilde and Katie Silberman (whom she collaborated on her debut feature Booksmart) wants to tell a keenly-feminist story within the dystopia thriller sub-genre. Most of the women are perceptive while the men are oblivious, not to mention chauvinistic. There’s even that stereotypical reproach ‘don’t get hysterical’ – treating women who ask questions as being mentally unstable.
Since this is only the first time I see Wilde’s work as a director, I’d say this is a pretty ambitious project for a sophomore effort. I’m not saying she doesn’t pull it off, as there are effective scenes and stylish flair that shows her directing chops. I think the way she displays extreme claustrophobia where characters are mentally suffocating is pretty bold, combined with stunning camera work by Matthew Libatique, At the same time, I think a little subtlety about an exercise in smoke and mirrors would go a long way. Some of the dialog are so verbose and so on-the nose, hitting you over the head with the same sentiment over and over. I have to say the score is pretty overpowering at times, though I’m usually a fan of composer John Powell‘s work.
As the audience is already one step ahead, it’s quite frustrating to watch the characters trying to catch up. Wilde doubles down on the nightmarish sequence which are shown over and over. The images of women dancing in circles forming the iris of an eye is captivating for a while but then it grows tiresome that it quickly loses its effectiveness.
What kept me engaged throughout is Florence Pugh, the movie’s not-so-secret weapon. Whatever had happened between her and Shia LaBeouf, she certainly made the right decision in casing Miss Flo. Truth be told, Pugh makes the movie bearable for me. She is so immensely watchable that she’s able to carry, even elevate the movie even when the script doesn’t serve her well. So on that front, Wilde utilizes Pugh’s talent well here as she gets to display a gamut of emotion, from an incandescently happy wife to one who goes absolutely berserk as her world comes crumbling down.
Now, the rest of the supporting cast are pretty much underutilized. Chris Pine is such a charismatic actor but he barely had much screen time here. It’s a shame as the few scenes he shares with Pugh is pretty darn riveting. It’s also fun to see them reunite after playing husband and wife in Outlaw King, Gemma Chan shows she can be quite threatening when she needs to be, but she has so little screen time here. Kiki Layne plays the only black character with a speaking role, Margaret, who senses something is afoot in Victory, but the way she’s written is so one-dimensional.
What about Harry? Well, Styles’ acting is not terrible per se, but he’s mostly out of his depth during the emotional scenes. Worst of all, he never quite sells the character for me as a seasoned actor would. Pugh runs (leaps & bounds) circles around him in pretty much every scene they do together. There’s barely any nuance in his performance, though his rabid fans likely won’t notice that. He does get to dance in this movie, though that frenetic scene is be set up as if something truly ominous is going to happen… but then nothing. I think that’s the major beef I have with Don’t Worry Darling, the ideas being presented just aren’t fully developed. It’s a high concept that’s more surface level as the script fails to explore it in a deeper level.
As the curtain is peeled back by the end, I was left scratching my head even more. There are even more questions than answers, which leaves me wondering just what the whole point of it all. All in all, the off-screen drama of Don’t Worry Darling is definitely more fascinating and would likely be remembered far more than the movie itself.
Have you seen Don’t Worry Darling, I’d love to hear what you think!