Let us, if we can, put aside all the various mini-controversies that surrounded the lead up to the Venice premiere of Don’t Worry Darling. Now that the film has debuted, maybe we can just focus on the movie itself, which is neither triumph nor disaster. Director Olivia Wilde has made an obvious and intermittently entertaining sci-thriller, one that borrows heavily from many better things but uses those pilfered parts effectively enough. For a while, anyway.
The film takes place in what looks like 1960s Palm Springs, mid-century development ringed by threatening desert mountains. This is a planned community built by a shadowy corporation, one that has a vaguely messianic mission to advance humanity … somehow. The men, all handsome, go off to work each morning while the women, all pretty, look after the kids or soak themselves in afternoon cocktails with neighbor wives. (Or they do both.) It’s an arch blending of Mad Men chic (with a bright polish) and Manhattan Project secrecy. Of course, there is an ominous hum underlying all this sozzled good-living, the sense that nothing this perfectly secure and uniformly agreeable could be real.
We probably sense that because we’re familiar with The Stepford Wives, or The Truman Show, and other movies and television shows that present an outwardly pristine, if antiquated, design for living that ripples with sinister, unseen energy. Wilde’s film wears those influences plainly and without much re-styling. Still, the film looks good and is filled with peppery performances. In the lead is Florence Pugh, that great 20-something phenom who burst onto the scene a few years ago in Lady Macbeth and has since delivered one striking performance after another. If her cool scratch and mettle, in the form of housewife Alice, seem a bit out of place in this breezy world, that’s probably the point. She is meant to realize, as are we, that she doesn’t belong in this ordered place. Pugh sharply registers Alice’s mounting alarm, and she vibes well with the other wives, played by, among others, comedian Kate Berlant and Wilde herself.
And then there is the matter of Alice’s husband, Jack, who is played by little-known indie musician Harry Styles. I kid, of course. Styles is one of the biggest music acts on the planet at the moment, and this, his second film role, was once the buzziest thing about the movie. Seeing Styles on screen feels like something of an event, a sense of occasion that he rises to meet. Yes, there is some flatness when Styles gets to emoting, but he otherwise exists confidently within the picture. I don’t think he’s a Brando for the digital era or anything, but I would certainly be curious to see him in something else after this. (Like, say, My Policeman, which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival next weekend.)
Don’t Worry Darling glides along, its jumble of repurposed elements in lively enough harmony until it’s time to knuckle down and really get into what’s happening to Alice. It’s then that Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke, and Shane Van Dyke’s screenplay begins to falter, as does Wilde’s direction. They show us essentially the same scene over and over again: Alice thinking she sees something unnerving only to be told, in gaslight-y terms, that she’s imagining things. She’s experiencing womanly hysteria, all the men in pressed white shirts and crisp suits who surround her insist. Wilde can’t figure out how to get the story out of this eddy; she stalls and repeats until it’s time to just go ahead and reveal what’s happening because the movie has to end at some point.
When that reveal comes, the film caves in. The intention here is to tell a pertinent story about women’s subjugation under the modern forces of anti-feminism, which has hardened online into a real-world aggressive sociopolitical ideology fueled by pseudo-intellectual public figures, red-pilled demagogues who have snaked their way into mainstream discourse—or, really, created their own mainstream. That’s certainly a salient topic for a film, but in Don’t Worry Darling’s execution, Wilde offers no new insights. There are even some contradictory elements to the grand secret premise of the film, a muddled clash of faux-empowerment and Handmaid’s Tale debasement.
Not that we really have much time to think about these matters. Once the film starts showing its cards, it hurries to its climax and conclusion, complete with an unconvincing car chase and a murder. What energy the movie had has been sapped. It staggers across the finish line as it asks us to consider something profound, a great re-awakening that will lead to a mighty reckoning for the movie’s bad men. We don’t get to see that bit, though, because Don’t Worry Darling has used up all its tricks.
What remains consistent and undaunted throughout, though, is Pugh, a commanding and centered actor who makes the most of the hash she’s served. There’s a vivid scene in which Alice confronts the community’s shifty, sauntering overseer, played with a cult leader’s menacing appeal by Chris Pine. The two crackle well together, and in their shared moments the film briefly feels spiky and inventive. If only their chemistry was the foundation on which Don’t Worry Darling was built, instead of its stack of blurry copies of things done better elsewhere, years ago.