Starring: Florence Pugh (Little Women), Harry Styles (Dunkirk), Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy), Gemma Chan (Eternals), KiKi Layne (The Old Guard), Nick Kroll (Big Mouth), Chris Pine (Star Trek)
Director: Olivia Wilde (Booksmart)
Writer: Katie Silberman (Set It Up)
Runtime: 2 hours 3 minutes
Release Date: 23rd September (US, UK)
Synopsis: Housewife Alice Chambers (Pugh) and her doting husband Jack (Styles) are living the dream in an idyillic suburbia as part of The Victory Project, a mysterious but alluring venture overseen by the charismatic Frank (Pine). When Alice begins to question the exact nature of the project, her world unravels as she uncovers the dark secrets of her supposedly perfect life.
When Olivia Wilde stepped away from the front of the camera and sat behind it on her feature directorial debut Booksmart, it for a moment seemed like we had another superstar in the making. Her ability to mix crowdpleasing comedy with an honest and heartfelt portrayal of female friendship, along with a distinct cinematic eye rarely seen in the genre, birthed one of the first seminal films of Gen Z and immediately made whatever she did next hotly anticipated by many a cinephile. The sophmore effort can often be a make-or-break moment for any director, and for it Wilde decided to pull out all the stops. With a genre-bending premise, an all-star ensemble, and a familiar but striking retro aesthetic, Don’t Worry Darling on paper seemed like it would be a surefire hit. Instead, much of the buzz around the film has been consumed by rumours and controversy, the overshadowing of which has only been made easier by the cryptic marketing doing everything it can to avoid telling you what the movie is actually about. With such an accumulation of hype and attention, even a truly great movie would struggle to live up to the expectations laden on Don’t Worry Darling, and that only makes the final messy results feel even more like a cruel punchline.
It’s hard to pin down the overriding genre of Don’t Worry Darling, but it certainly falls within the camp of speculative fiction; a story that uses a hypothetical scenario to reflect the darker truths of our modern world. It liberally borrows concepts from all over literature and cinema, most obviously from the likes of other false utopian narratives like The Stepford Wives and Pleasantville, but to list more of them would not only give away its twists but also reveal how lacking in original ideas the screenplay fundamentally is. There’s a fascinating kernel of an idea at the centre of its core conceit, but it fails in every fathomable way to communicate that message. The most obvious culprit here is the interminable pacing, which doles out new revelations at a snail’s pace and finds Alice running on the spot for much of the story as she’s inundated with hallucinations and gaslighting. The direction plays things way too coy despite the obviousness that there is trouble in paradise, and the constant teasing comes off more like stalling than suspense.
Once the film finally drops the pretence and starts explaining itself, it’s far too little too late, and then it just ends. After eons of build-up through its first two thirds, the final act suddenly leaps into overdrive and rushes to its climax with a flurry of concerning unanswered questions and no time to linger on the impact or implications of its harrowing premise. It’s possible a lot of these finer details got lost in the edit, but the more likely answer is also the simplest: the movie just didn’t have much depth to begin with. Despite its lofty ambitions to explore topics like the dichotomy of happiness and autonomy, toxic masculinity and “traditional family values”, what it ultimately has to say is incredibly surface-level and appeals to a problematic cishetero white-centric view of feminism where any other issues that contribute to a patriarchal society aren’t even addressed. Don’t Worry Darling aspires to be for women what Get Out was for people of colour, but it’s far too concerned with simply looking important to give its timely subject matter the nuance it deserves.
The biggest saving grace of the film is its cast, most prominently another powerhouse turn from Florence Pugh. She absolutely understands the assignment and imbues Alice with all the subtleties of inner conflict, caught between her undying love for her husband and her unshakable feeling that there is something wrong with her life. There is hardly ever a scene without her and her screen presence alone is what keeps the movie watchable until its crash-and-burn final act. Also delivering solid work is Chris Pine as the elusive Frank, playing the role as a repulsive yet charming mix of Elon Musk, Jordan Peterson and Jim Jones; you absolutely understand why the majority of the characters are so enamoured by and eager to please him.
Unfortunately, whilst the rest of the ensemble deliver consistently good performances, the material they have to work with is severly lacking. This is most evident in the roles given to KiKi Layne, weirdly enough, Olivia Wilde herself. As Alice’s best friend Bunny, Wilde’s characterisation of this cynical yet content wife and mother adds a much needed dimension to a world where, intentional as it may be, most of the female characters are pretty interchangable. Unfortunately, when it comes time to dig deeper into Bunny’s unique perspective, the movie is basically over and we get only the most base understanding of her conflicted motivations. Layne’s Margaret, meanwhile, is an incredibly key component of the narrative but she’s a character more often talked about than actually seen, and beyond some fleeting exposition we never get a sense of who she was before the events of the story. A charitable reading of the film’s subtext is that Margaret, as one of the few prominent BIPOC characters in the film, is meant to represent how marginalised women are often the first to notice and call out their oppresion but are ignored by their priveleged white counterparts until it’s too late…but once you realise this role was originally intended for Dakota Johnson, that interpretation ends up being little more than wishful thinking that this film has any kind of intersectional point to make.
In terms of wasted potential, Gemma Chan and Nick Kroll are left out to dry as Shelley and Bill, the respective spouses of Pine and Wilde. Chan’s role at first seems to be something of an Aunt Lydia-type, a queen bee responsible for making sure Alice and her friends are content and fulfilled in their domestic paradise, but there’s not even a hint of an extra dimension to her perfunctory role until it comes out of nowhere right at the end. Kroll has even less to work with and disappears into the background for much of the runtime, given even less attention than the majority of its incidental players. We then arrive at the biggest elephant in the room: Harry Styles as Alice’s husband Jack. This is a meaty and complex role that requires its actor to be able to shift demeanour subtly yet dramatically…and Styles simply isn’t up to the task. His natural charisma carries him well enough through his romantic interactions with Pugh, but as soon as he has to portray anything but a dreamboat he is utterly out of his depth in comparison to her. When driven to anger or frustration by Alice’s conspiratorial spiral, he comes off more like a petulant child than a concerned husband, made all the more baffling by his indecision to commit to an accent; I swear, they must have written in those lines about his nationality simply to justify how jarring it is. I saw this movie with a big crowd of Harry Styles stans, and even they were laughing at the ineptness of his performance.
Let’s all be honest, people: using 1950s retro kitsch as a metaphor for patricarchal structures and false utopia is played, and its use in Don’t Worry Darling gives away the jist of its intentions before you can even see a chink in its superficially flawless world. That said, despite the worn-out nature of its setting, it is executed on a technical level to near-perfection. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique is a gorgeous technicolour display that evokes classic Hollywood stylistically but subverts it into a modern nightmare whenever reality comes into question. Katie Byron’s production design and Arianne Phillips’ costumes are impeccably realised and capture the story’s fantasised and nostalgic fantasy of the era through a contemporary lens perfectly; also, I want every dress and accessory Pugh and Wilde wear in this. The always underrated John Powell delivers a solid score that effortlessly transitions between paradisical whimsy and eerie horror, though conversely the constant blaring of period music only serves to remind the audience how stagnant and overdone this aesthetic is and just makes you wish you were playing Fallout. At least there you can kill mutants and bandits while listening to these jazzy tunes.
Don’t Worry Darling is a beautiful trash fire; a trainwreck you can’t look away from that confuses vagueness for subtelty, confusion for suspense, and pomposity for importance. It’s far from the worst film of 2022, for it has too many positive qualities and even its faults are so fascinatingly inept that you could write an entire thesis about its failings on a storytelling and thematic level. It is however, unfortunately but undoubtedly, is the most frustrating film of 2022, the most pretentious film of 2022, the most laughable film of 2022, and sadly also the most disappointing film of 2022. Wilde may have aimed high in comparing her magnum opus to the likes of The Matrix and Inception, but what she has instead crafted is destined to be compared to so many other failed and forgotten wannabes like In Time, Transcendence and Serenity (no, not the Firefly movie. The one with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. Don’t remember it? It’s a doozy!) To put it succinctly: Olivia Wilde has made an M. Night Shyamalan movie, and not one of the good ones. Watch at your own risk.
FINAL VERDICT: 2.5/10