Don’t worry darling; you’re right on the money.
Florence Pugh and Harry Styles appear in Olivia Wilde’s glitzy thriller, but its unsubtlety undermines it.
Harry Styles, a pop star aspirant, said this about his new star vehicle at the famed Venice Film Festival press conference for Don’t Worry Darling: “My favourite part about the movie is, like, it seems like a… like a movie. It has the feel of a genuine, theater-going movie. A video of Styles’ co-star Chris Pine appearing to lose his sense of reality as he stated these words went viral, and Styles found himself the target of internet jokes for the second time during the cursed press tour for Don’t Worry, Darling.
The problem is that now that I’ve seen the movie, I understand what Harry was saying. The Olivia Wilde-directed picture Don’t Worry Darling, which also stars Florence Pugh, is one that you should see in a theatre. It’s packed with sexy, well-dressed celebrities. It has a modern appearance and a strong, engulfing sound. It has a small amount of sex, a small amount of mystery, and a small amount of action. In an effort to knock a huge, stupid concept all the way up into the cheap seats, it takes a hefty swing at it. Although it isn’t particularly intelligent or entirely successful, it is the kind of audacious, brassy, high-concept studio thriller that is uncommon these days. (At least, I believe Harry was attempting to express that.)
In that setting, the flurry of rumours that have swirled about it prior to its release seem to be an integral part of the experience, or at the very least congruent with it: a decadent, glossy panorama of celebrity culture at the start of the millennium. Fortunately, we can stop talking about the scandal there. The completed film is slick and obviously well created, if not well thought out. If there were issues on set or disagreement among the group, it doesn’t show.
Don’t Stress In a corporate utopia of the 1950s, Darling is set. A young, infatuated couple named Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Styles) reside in a modular, mid-century suburban paradise surrounded by tall palm trees. The males all work at the Victory Project, a mystery facility in the middle of the desert, while all the women are homemakers. What they do there is a closely-kept secret; the project’s charismatic demonic leader, Frank (Pine), is a cult figure who only speaks in generic, vague aphorisms about their shared purpose and ideal way of life.
With Jack’s attentions at home, drinks with her sarcastic neighbour Bunny (Wilde), and ballet practise with the other women under Shelley, Frank’s wife, Alice floats through her life in a happy haze (Gemma Chan). But she can’t help but see the seams in this picture-perfect world’s façade—a neurotic wife living next door, an empty eggshell, a jet crashing to the ground. Nobody else seems to notice these flaws, but she is drawn to them; as a result, her focus wanders and her perception of reality begins to disintegrate.
There doesn’t appear to be much of a connection between Wilde’s previous movie, the likeable and conscientiously lovely teen comedy Booksmart, and this gorgeous, hyper-real, very unpleasant psychological thriller. However, a powerful, crowd-pleasing filmmaker with a penchant for going large and little patience for nuance can be felt at the heart of both movies. That’s not a criticism; rather, it’s a pleasure to have a female filmmaker working in this popular tone and having a sizable studio behind her. (The Woman King, starring Gina Prince-Bythewood, hopes to establish it as a trend.)
However, Wilde’s desire to go straight for the audience’s heart worked better for her in a scathing comedy than it does in a movie that operates in an enigmatic, mystery-box style. She begins by packing the movie with of razor-sharp visual metaphors. Some of these are creative and arresting, like Pugh being pushed back by her ideal home’s plate-glass windows or suffocating herself with plastic wrap. Some are extremely clichéd and on the nose, like those empty eggs, the sizzling bacon and coffee motif from Groundhog Day, and the Marilyn Monroe impersonator dancing in the bottom of a huge cocktail glass. All of them lack nuance. Before Victory has even completed creating it, Wilde begins to dismantle it, using a Hitchcock box set that has been attached to a sledgehammer.
As Alice makes her way closer to the reality of what is happening to the spouses of Victory, there is no room for surprise or nuance. Nothing is precisely as it looks, yet to an audience with even a minimal understanding of movies, everything appears to be exactly as it is. Even if you are unable to predict the precise nature of the Shyamalan-esque turn in the story, you will be able to detect its general shapes and direction long before it really occurs.
Perhaps there is an open honesty to this, or even a righteous rage. After all, there is really no mystery at all if you are trying to figure out what forces confine women to a life of placid domesticity that never quite materialises. Perhaps pretending otherwise in order to pull off a gratifying twist would be gaslighting in and of itself. But if that’s the case, a high-concept thriller with a suspenseful plot was undoubtedly the incorrect vehicle for the message.