Don't Worry Darling Florence Pugh Harry Styles Olivia Wilde

Don’t Worry Darling is a hot mess

An almost impressively terrible twist completely derails this high-concept thriller.

It doesn’t take long for the audience to realize that there’s something “off” in Don’t Worry Darling. Immediately, the film’s simulacrum of the 1950s feels cribbed off early, overtly self-aware episodes of Mad Men with a dash of Bioshock mixed in. Everything seems a little too perfect, everyone seems a little too drunk and the ominous shadow of the Victory Project looms heavily. Abnormality and dissent are treated as terrible crimes; referring to one of the wives who has become increasingly paranoid and unstable, Bunny (Olivia Wilde) says, “She was our friend when she was normal.” Now that she has broken with the status quo, the wife is beyond saving.

There’s something else amiss, though. The filmmaking feels a little too clean, and the universe is too depopulated of ideas. While we immediately sense that things aren’t as they seem, the film fails to build an appropriate aesthetic or narrative atmosphere of paranoia. Instead, we rely entirely on Florence Pugh as Alice to carry the weight of a social breakdown on her shoulders. One day, she sees a plane crash, bringing her to their little society’s forbidden outskirts. Out in the desert, she also witnesses something that changes how she sees this world, something she cannot put into words. 

The problem with Don’t Worry Darling lies in the third-act twist, which makes it challenging to deal with specifics. So, in generalized terms, the characters aren’t properly developed or motivated, and the ideology of the world is poorly, quickly sketched out. Unfortunately, central to the film’s utopian fantasy, this perfect romantic relationship between Alice and her husband Jack (Harry Styles) doesn’t hold up — in large part because Styles’ performance lacks both substance and danger. He comes across as an automaton, going through the motions without a glimmer of life behind his eyes. In many scenes, he’s gooey and unreadable, not in a way that seems intentional, but rather unmotivated or directionless. 

Olivia Wilde, Nick Kroll, Chris Pine and others in Don’t Worry Darling

It’s not a spoiler to say that this film plays on the (often) right-wing trope that things used to be better back in the day. Wives stayed home and cooked, and men wore suits. Everyone was happier and wealthier, and the world was in order. The movie’s staunchly feminist perspective quickly pokes holes in this fantasy as Alice comes under increased scrutiny in the community. She’s infantilized, and they attempt to drug her up. Even in this recreation, the women are in a silent revolt, trying to break through the noise.

However, one of the main issues with this approach is that it feels so limited. It does little to account for the subtext of those who romanticize the past (and the 1950s in particular). Yes, they want regressive gender roles, but it goes deeper than that. The fantasy itself is rooted in a white supremacist fantasy, which ignores or outright celebrates the segregation that kept non-white people from opportunities and “mainstream” society. Making the casting decision to populate the Victory Project with many non-white characters without addressing race feels strange. It unmoors some of the MRA-inspired rhetoric from its grimy web of violent ideas that are inseparable from its misogyny.

While in some ways the film’s image is “pretty” and “perfect,” the way the film is shot and constructed feels unmotivated. The costumes and makeup are faultless; the production design is on point. Yet, how the whole world comes together feels half-hazard and lacking in intention. There’s no genuine attempt at understanding the role of the image in creating the fantasy of this world; outside of rote repetition of specific images (cut toast, massaged steaks and cars pulling out of driveways), we’re left with very little to hold onto. As the world starts to crumble, there’s no strong motivation to disrupt this flow of images to introduce a destabilizing force within the film. The actors are the ones who have to pick up the slack.

Most of my biggest issues with the film come from its final act, making it difficult to outline why this film doesn’t work. Rather than cast a new light on how characters behaved “pre-revelation,” the big twist only raises questions without satisfactory answers. The film lacks consistency in character behaviour and development in such an egregious way that it inspires little more than a deep, lingering embarrassment in the viewer. A valuable exercise would be to imagine the film as if it had an “oh shit —,he was a ghost all along” montage à la Sixth Sense and how that sequence would not work because the groundwork was never laid in terms of ideas, character or narrative. ■

Don’t Worry Darling, directed Olivia Wilde

Don’t Worry Darling opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 23.

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