This past weekend, it was revealed to an apprehensive public that Don’t Worry Darling is a real movie, and not just a make believe vehicle for a social experiment in insane drama, and how long a public will latch on as it gets more and more absurd. The psychological thriller directed by Olivia Wilde has been for the past two years, but the past few weeks especially, at the center of a cultural conversation and speculation about what exactly went down on that set, and how it led to comically cold and avoidant interactions between cast and crew at its premiere in Venice at the beginning of this month. The film, which draws its inspiration from films such as Get Out, the Truman Show, and Edward Scissorhands, as well as The Twilight Zone, is a candy colored utopia that quickly devolves into nightmare, pointing out the dangers in nostalgia and the longing for a “simpler time,” and implicating certain online personalities in the process.
Don’t Worry Darling, written by Katie Silbermann and based on a story by brothers Carey and Shane Van Dyke (yes, they are the grandsons of Dick Van Dyke), introduces us to picture perfect couple Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack Chambers (Harry Styles). They live in a perfect, pastel oasis in the middle of the desert, where each morning the wives get up, impeccably dressed, coiffed, and manicured, and make their husbands breakfast (two eggs, bacon, black coffee) and send them off to work on their mysterious Victory Project, under their inspiring boss Frank (Chris Pine), who runs the town with his wife Shelley (Gemma Chan). While the husbands go off to work, the wives lounge by the pool, shop, go to ballet classes, and take the trolley in and out of town. And they’re waiting, gorgeous five course meals prepared, when their husbands come home at night. However, what seems perfect falls apart as Alice begins to question her reality, and who and what she can really trust around her.
Florence Pugh carries the entire weight of this movie on her shoulders. It is what is required of her character, the only one who seems to notice that everything’s off as others go about their existence day to day. We have to watch her crumble and question everything she believes that she knows, and she never falters for a second. Much of the film is centered around her own head, so we get no shortage of close ups to let us know exactly how she is feeling.
A lot of the conversation around this film revolved around Harry Styles and, judging by the amount of Love on Tour merch being sported in sold out showings, many of the early audiences came to see how he performed. Harry Styles is currently one of the largest stars in the world, with his recent album Harry’s House still sitting comfortably on top of the charts and with sold out residencies through the end of this year into next summer. Pit tickets for his shows regularly top $500, sometimes reaching to $1,000 or $2,000. He recently covered Rolling Stone’s first global issue, and can generally be found in any conversation about music or concerts recently. The question goes, then, can he act? Though Styles made his film debut in 2017’s Dunkirk, his role there was small and didn’t require much acting chops. Though he made a small cameo in Eternals which served as his introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Don’t Worry Darling is audience’s first opportunity to see him in a major role and, while not strictly terrible, he suffers from being Harry Styles in this role. At each of his most serious, shout-y scenes, the audience burst into awkward laughter, unsure of quite how to react. It is difficult to see him as anything other than the charismatic rock star who is trying his best. Later in the film, there is a twist that explains why his outbursts seem so awkward and weak, which make his interesting acting choices make sense. Though it is difficult to separate Harry Styles the International Rock Star from his role as Jack Chambers in this movie, that is actually used to its advantage in the ending. When his character is entirely reversed, it is meant to surprise and disgust the audience to such an extreme extent that they don’t know how to react and, in the case of my theater, couldn’t do anything but laugh. It is meant to be absurd, a caricature, exacerbated by the fact that we learn that Jack, when creating his character in Victory, chose to be British, while he is American in real life. (This means that Harry Styles, a Brit, was playing an American faking a British accent, another reason his performance felt so odd).
The world of Victory is carefully crafted, and the cinematography skillfully plotted, so much that the film suffers from the director’s inability to let it go. Towards the second and third acts of the film, it becomes repetitive because we are unable to move out of the nostalgic lens, the glistening housewives and the doting husbands. Wilde becomes obsessed with cracking the perfect facade so much so that she is unable to fully let it crumble. The audience is met with a back and forth of Alice realizing what is happening, so much so that we reach the conclusion far before she does, and it begins to drag.
Don’t Worry Darling suffers for the fact that it is not the first of its type to attempt this arc. Had certain films that Wilde is clearly referencing not been made and imitated to death, many of its points would feel far more revolutionary. Nothing it says is too revolutionary – of course the 1950s weren’t actually “the good old days” for most, and it is dangerous to believe that we can or should go back to an era when the women stayed home and waited for the husbands to return from work. The kind of feminism that the movie settles on: women can do more than dote on their husbands, is a not a new idea by any means. The only thing that makes this revolutionary is the backdrop it is set against: the thin reference to online personalities such as Jordan Peterson reminds the viewer that people such as this really do still exist in the real world.
Don’t Worry Darling is an entertaining thriller, elevated by the leading performance of Florence Pugh, with engaging cinematography, ambitious direction, and gorgeous production design. While the message might be a little stale, it’s finale makes it clear that some people still need to hear it.