Don’t Worry Darling (2022)

Welcome to Victory.

Defining the line between a serviceable film and a successful one can be difficult. Are the failures in the direction, the pacing, the performances, the script? In Olivia Wilde’s sophomore feature, Don’t Worry Darling, all the above aspects have issues but what really keeps it from soaring is its own contradictions. That is not to say the film is a total write-off, as there are some incredible moments, but unfortunately, most of them are either underutilized or overutilized to the point of weakening the tension of the work and moving it into the realm of a hyper saturated melodrama-cum-thriller that petered out in the third act with a twist that the audience was well aware was inevitable.

A better way …

In a mid-century exclusive community called Victory, the men dutifully report daily to their mysterious work for town and company founder Frank (Chris Pine). The women stay home and, after tending to their houses, spend the rest of their time either day-drinking by the pool, going on shopping trips, or attending a dance class helmed by Frank’s formidable wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan). Victory is a “progressive” town, not only because it is at some forefront of vague technological advancement, but because, unlike period-accurate communities of the time, not all the inhabitants are white.

The primary couple we engage with are Alice (Florence Pugh) and her handsome husband, Jack (Harry Styles). Alice and Jack sexually hunger for each other, which more than often leaves Alice’s painstakingly prepared meals swept off the dinner table as they engage in sex. Alice is the perfect stay-at-home (where it’s safe) wife who is cognizant of her husband’s needs and available to his desires. She’s also not lacking in her own earthy desires, which Jack is more than happy to satisfy. They’re popular amongst their peers, and Alice keeps being told that as long as she remains a support to Jack, he will advance through the ranks of the Victory project.

Dream or reality?

Alice’s life is one of boozy parties that break up the repetitive nature of her stay-at-home duties. Her neighbors are all happy couples, including Olivia Wilde as the social maven Bunny and her competitive husband, Dean (Nick Kroll). Alice once had a friend in Margaret (KiKi Layne) who broke the rules, went out into the desert, and has since been struggling with her mental health (ostensibly because she lost her child out in the wilds). Margaret knows that there is something fundamentally wrong with Victory, but every time she speaks up, she is silenced by the creepy Dr. Collins (Timothy Simons) or surrounded by mysterious, red-suited Victory employees who simply make her disappear.

When Alice herself sees something that she shouldn’t, the picture-perfect world of Victory begins to unravel. Wilde foreshadows Alice’s descent into what appears to be madness with dreams and waking visions. They’re not subtle. The subtext that Victory is suffocating the women who live there becomes painfully literal. Metaphor in Katie Silberman’s script vacillates between the cleverly implied and the overwhelmingly obvious. The film will no doubt garner comparisons to The Stepford Wives (1975) and Get Out (2017), but there are many other works that it is derivative of, yet to even mention them would move into complete spoiler territory.

‘We’ve built something truly special.’

The biggest strength of the film comes from Pugh’s performance. At this stage, to state that Pugh is a stellar actor seems redundant; there are few Hollywood stars of her age that can command the screen as well as she. Then, of course, there’s the trouble with Harry Styles, Dunkirk (2017). Styles isn’t a train wreck as Jack, but he’s not equal to the task of working against Pugh. Pine’s Frank, apparently modeled on pseudo-philosopher Jordan Peterson, is quietly menacing, and he babbles incomprehensible slogans about “power” and “support.” The scenes where Frank drops the charming persona to take on Alice as an antagonist are exciting. If there had been more of that in the script and less repetitive messaging, the film would have been a great deal more interesting.

Visually the film is a small marvel. The production design by Katie Byron, Color Out of Space (2019), is perfection, and the director of photography, Matthew Libatique, Black Swan (2010), lenses every moment from the mundane to the surreal with his well-established skill. Wilde’s direction is solid, and she gets the best performances possible from her ensemble (even Styles considering his limitations). However, the pacing of the film is baffling. We spend too long in the set-up, then not long enough in the section where Alice begins to uncover the rot in Victory and almost no time at all in dealing with the reveal that presents more questions than it answers.

Victory lap

Don’t Worry Darling harkens back to a time when big studios were willing to take risks on genre pieces that didn’t have a built-in audience. Arguably the casting of the film was enough to guarantee a viewership despite the content. Wilde and Silberman’s feminist fable would have benefitted from a tightening of the script and a clearer view of how they were going to communicate their thesis. Don’t Worry Darling is certainly interesting if derivative. There is a great film in the bones of the one we are presented with, one that is neater and more compact and doesn’t struggle with the internal logic it presents. However, we have what we have, which is a piece of entertainment that sits at a mid-tier level but is ironically brought down by just how amazing it could have been if it ironed out the blatantly crinkly aspects.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Nadine Whitney

Don’t Worry Darling is released through Warner Bros. Australia