Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Written by Maria Athayde
I will be the first to admit that the drama surrounding “Don’t Worry Darling” is a bit heavy-handed and that the discussions about its director, Olivia Wilde, are misogynistic. But these discussions don’t make it any less interesting. I remember mentioning to my colleague, Anna Harrison, here at Drink in the Movies that the rollout for “Don’t Worry Darling” was a dumpster fire that I could not look away from and that the movie would never live up to its press tour drama. The allegations surrounding the movie are many. First, Shia LaBeouf was allegedly fired a claim that he has publicly denied. Next, there was the entanglement between Wilde, the director, and Harry Styles, one of the movie’s stars. Wilde was also publicly served custody documents while on stage at CinemaCon (a major ick in my book). To add to the chaos, Wilde and the movie’s lead Florence Pugh were at odds about certain scenes in the movie. In an interview with Harper’s Bazar, Pugh expressed her discontent that the movie was being reduced to its sex scenes. In a separate interview with Variety, Wilde argued that the scenes were focused on female pleasure alone (trust me, the “sex scenes” depicted here are extremely forgettable). According to Vulture, the production was allegedly marred by a screaming match, which ultimately lead Pugh to limit her press participation for the film except for her iconic appearance at the movie’s red carpet premiere at the 79th Venice International Film Festival. There was also the infamous “spitgate” incident that would take too much time to explain here. As the movie releases to wider audiences, Pugh shared a graceful tribute and behind-the-scenes photos, on Instagram, with the film’s crew and she also thanked all those who bought tickets to see the movie. For her part, Wilde posted her own tribute, also on Instagram, expressing her deep gratitude for all those involved in the movie. Despite all of this baggage, I was anxious to see the movie as a fan of Wilde’s previous film and directorial debut “Booksmart.”
“Don’t Worry, Darling,” tells the story of a happily married young couple Alice (Pugh) and Jack Chambers (Harry Styles) in the 1950s living a seemingly perfect life in the town of Victory, California. This perfect town is led by Frank (Chris Pine), Jack’s boss, and the founder of the Victory Project. Everything in Victory runs like clockwork, pristine houses, beautiful landscaping juxtaposed with the arid desert environment, wives that cook their husbands’ hot breakfasts and wait for them to return home with roast dinners, boozy parties with friends, trips to the country club, and a public transit system that works. If this reminds you of “The Stepford Wives” you are sort of on the right track. But behind its pristine facade, something is off with Victory. The women are expected to keep quiet and ask no questions while all the men work on the development of progressive materials for Frank’s Victory Project. Things start to unravel when Margaret (Kiki Layne in an extremely underutilized role even though she’s a central part of the mystery) tries to tell Alice (Pugh), Bunny (Wilde), Peg (Kate Berlant), and Violet (Sydney Chandler) that there is something nefarious behind their respective husbands’ work. Everyone in town casts Margaret off and is reluctant to believe her. This starts to change when Alice witnesses a plane crash and subsequently witnesses Margaret’s suicide. Margaret’s death is the catalyst Alice needs to ask questions of her own about what is behind the Victory Project. Alice discovers that the Victory Project is actually a virtual reality simulation and that in the real world she is an overworked doctor and her husband, Jack, recently lost his job and spends all day on this computer listening to men’s rights podcasts. Without her consent, Jack traps Alice in this simulation in an attempt to save their relationship. Back in Victory, Alice manages to kill Jack and escape back to the real world through a mirror she finds in the Victory headquarters.
Simple enough, right? The “twist” for this movie is telegraphed so early on that any moviegoer with an ounce of film literacy will be able to get what is going on 20 minutes into the movie. This is where things start falling apart. But first, let’s talk about a few positives. Visually and sonically speaking “Don’t Worry Darling” looks and sounds great. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is stunning as ever, Katie Byron’s production design, Rachael Ferrara’s set decoration, and John Powell’s score elevate the film. The pastel-like visuals, the barren desert landscape, and, at times, the ominous score give the film a sense of direction.
As for Pugh, ever since her performance in “Lady Macbeth” and her star-making turn in “Midsommar” I’ve been fascinated by her as an actor. The way Pugh brings subtlety and anguish to her performances never ceases to amaze me. Pugh acts circles around every other performer on screen with Chris Pine and Gemma Chan, in a very small role, being the scarce exceptions to the rule. This is most evident in the scenes she shares with Styles. This does not mean Styles is a bad actor – I, for one, was expecting Tommy Wiseau-level of bad acting – but that is not what we get here. Styles was not terrible but he wasn’t good either. His performance is very “meh”. Styles is still in the early stages of his acting career, after all this is his first major role, and he is certainly still trying to find his footing as a performer. During my screening, however, there were at least 2 moments of audible laughter when Styles’ Jack was on screen (one during Jack’s meltdown in the car and the other one, when he appears with a faux beard look near the end of the movie). There were also audible cheers when Pugh’s Alice killed Jack. I have no doubt Styles is a talented pop music performer. You have to look no further than his recently sold-out record-breaking 15 consecutive performances at Madison Square Garden to know that there is something special there. However, he is out of his depth in this role and everything that works about his magnetic on-stage presence was missing from this performance.
“Don’t Worry Darling” was so worried about delivering a twist that everything, especially its third act, felt rushed leaving us with too many unanswered questions. Like was the plane crash a glitch in the VR experience? What’s up with the earthquakes? Did other women besides Bunny know they were in a simulation? Bunny mentions that when you kill a man in virtual reality he dies in the real world. Does this happen to women too? What really happened to Margaret? What’s up with the saran wrap suffocation scene? What about those redacted documents? Did nobody in the real world notice that Alice went missing? Why did Frank’s wife Shelley (Gemma Chan) kill him? These are interesting questions we’ll never know the answer to. In an interview with Maggie Gyllenhaal Wilde stated that she based Frank, Pine’s character, on “Jordan Peterson, who is this pseudo-intellectual hero to the incel community”. But what we get in “Don’t Worry Darling” is the most basic bitch version of incel energy. Perhaps purposefully so zero effort was put into characterizing Jack in the real world. What we got instead was a real-world version of Jack that was a disheveled bumbling unkept basement dweller who was unhappy with his wife working long hours at the hospital. One of my takeaways from this film is that it is never a good sign when the off-screen drama is more interesting than what we see on screen. In the end, “Don’t Worry Darling” was all style over substance, and whatever message this movie was trying to send didn’t work.
“Don’t Worry Darling” Trailer
You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on Letterboxd, Serializd, Twitter, and view more of what she’s up to here.