It would be easy to kick off a review of Olivia Wilde’s sophomore feature, “Don’t Worry Darling,” by toe-dipping into the world Wilde created — one that boasts some of the year’s most gorgeous craft work, from Arianne Phillips’ costumes to Katie Bryon’s production design to John Powell’s score — by tossing off something like, “In Olivia Wilde’s glittering ’50s fairy tale, set in the fictional desert idyll of Victory, all is not what it seems,” because that’s the entire point of this transparently designed cinematic nightmare.
It also would be incorrect, because everything actually is what it seems in Victory. “Don’t Worry Darling” is so clearly, so obviously not set in an idyllic ’50s community that to say the film packs a twist is not at twist at all. It’s disingenuous, easy, cheeky — much like the film itself, which starts off strong before crumbling into baffling storytelling choices made worse by the revolting intentions behind them. More frustrating is that the film also offers stunning craft work, a wonderfully immersive quality, and one of star Florence Pugh’s best performances yet. Too bad about the rest of it.
Wilde’s first film, charming high-school comedy “Booksmart,” showed the actress-turned-filmmaker’s skill with directing her own cast. “Don’t Worry Darling” provides a major step up, both in the demands she’s placed on her performers and the need to build out its own world. Wilde re-teamed with her “Booksmart” screenwriter Katie Silberman, who refashioned a previous script from brothers Carey and Shane Van Dyke (yes, the grandsons of Dick Van Dyke), to present a lush fairy tale about people who seem to have it all.
Seem being the operative word here. Set in the perfectly designed town of Victory (as if “Leave It to Beaver” was set in Palm Springs), “Don’t Worry Darling” follows young housewife Alice Chamber (Pugh) as she begins to suspect that her lavish existence is, well, not what it seems. Despite the trappings of a prosperous suburban existence — handsome husband (Harry Styles), cute house, great outfits, kicky girlfriends, parties galore — Alice can’t shake the feeling that something is out of place.
But every time she tries to ask hubby Jack what he and his friends (all men, all also the only breadwinners) do at their desert headquarters (something about “progressive materials”?), or dares to wonder if there’s anything beyond keeping a clean house, she’s waylaid. There’s dance class to attend (where the rigid instructor, portrayed by a steely-eyed Gemma Chan, repeatedly tells the gals that’s there’s “beauty in control, grace in symmetry, we move as one”), or a martini to mix, or Jack gobbling her up for a quickie (nothing shuts a lady up faster than an orgasm, right?). The women stay with the women. Her husband thinks she hangs the moon. She makes a mean roast. She’s a living doll.
Surely, that’s not all there is. As Alice wonders, so too does the audience.
As Alice’s internal confusion — a mishmash of flashbacks, hallucinations, dreams, nightmares, portentous voiceover, music motifs, and a flash-sideways that, hilariously, zooms in on a copy of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” — pushes into her external existence, nothing feels safe. Alice has a keen understanding that in a place like Victory, the very hint of something wrong is, in itself, deeply wrong. Those moments propel the film through its first two acts. So does Pugh.
Pugh has never turned in a bad performance, bringing emotion, texture, and richness to everything from “Lady Macbeth” to “Little Women” and “Midsommar.” She excels at turning her characters — all women on the verge — into fully realized people, unafraid to tap into their worst impulses alongside their most admirable ones. Most of “Don’t Worry Darling” is told through Alice’s perspective and thank goodness for that, because she’s the film’s unmitigated highlight. Pugh always delivers, even when the material is beneath its star.
No matter: Pugh makes a meal of Alice and, frankly, everyone else. Her many co-stars turn in serviceable performances with occasional bits of brilliance, but no one comes close to her — not Styles as her seemingly doe-eyed and devoted husband Jack, not Wilde as Alice’s spiky best friend Bunny, not even KiKi Layne as harried housewife Margaret who shows Alice what’s waiting for her if (when?) she steps out of line. As Victory’s revered leader, only Chris Pine seems interested in and able to face off with Pugh, to go toe-to-toe. However, the film cuts off their contentious relationship after a handful of pulse-pounding scenes. Another missed opportunity among many.
Many of the film’s most striking sequences were spoiled in the film’s marketing, from Pugh wrapping her head in cling wrap to Pugh being literally crushed by closing-in walls or Pugh racing across a vast desert. (Common theme: Pugh!) They remain impressive in the moment, but reveal that the images are bigger than the story they serve. It looks good, but it has nothing to say that hasn’t already been said before, and better, by other films. (TL;DR: It’s hard to be a woman in this world!)
Wilde and Silberman seem to bank on the raw power of the film’s third-act reveal to make up for the conspicuously predictable plotting of “Don’t Worry Darling,” but that flimsy switcheroo only detracts from the film’s actual merits. Pugh’s outstanding performance and the extraordinary below-the-line craftsmanship are all impeccably rendered, but they can’t overcome the film’s rotten core concept.
That said, the long-simmering reveal packs real shock value, almost enough to obscure how ludicrous it is. (No spoilers, but it’s the pure viciousness of its machinations that are really surprising; audiences will also likely remember them as being the film’s most upsetting and cheapest plot points.) On its face, it’s the sort of third-act whammy that will engender plenty of chatter, but it won’t stand up to even the most general of post-screening ruminations.
Poke one hole in the attempted logic of “Don’t Worry Darling,” and you’ll find three more open right up. The rules of this world cease to make sense and, even worse, their intentions appear to be borne of hideous misunderstanding and misreading. In the months leading to the film’s release, Wilde has talked about everything from its influences (“The Truman Show,” “The Matrix,” “Inception” — stop! It’s enough to spoil the damn thing before the credits go up) to her desire to show “female pleasure” on screen in new ways. But viewed through the context of those inescapable talking points, “Don’t Worry Darling” reads as both obvious and offensive.
If this film is really about female pleasure, we’d hate to see Wilde’s interpretation of a film about female pain. This one hurts enough.
“Don’t Worry Darling” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release the film in theaters on Friday, September 23.