There are two primary problems when it comes to writing about Don’t Worry Darling, which opens in theaters today. The first is that it’s difficult to write about without revealing the film’s central twist — and it’s a worthwhile twist you should experience for yourself, so I will avoid spoilers here.
The second is that we are still amid the intrigue of its release circus, which makes viewing the film as just a film almost impossible for someone who’s up to date on the rumored chaos behind the scenes. It’s as though you’re waiting for the on-screen drama to mirror the messiness of the off-screen stuff. Only that never comes to pass. There is no frame where you can feel the real-life fallout between the film’s main star Florence Pugh and director Olivia Wilde, who also has a significant role in the movie.
Instead, Don’t Worry Darling is a movie that feels like a movie, an entertaining thriller replete with well-built tension, mostly elegant acting performances (except for Harry Styles’s), and a richly designed world. Narratively, the film is trying too many ideas at once (or, as one critic put it, there were “there were one too many Wikipedia tabs open when the script was written”) and some of them are outright silly. But Pugh is constitutionally incapable of turning in a bad performance, and a movie that relies heavily on her versatility succeeds because she succeeds.
Almost none of this matters though, because on day 1,340 of this press cycle, any accomplishment made by the film — and any attempt to judge the film on its merits — has long been outpaced by the circus. It’s a shame, really — Olivia Wilde’s second directorial effort is solidly made and doesn’t deserve to be overshadowed by the infamy of its rollout.
From the start, Don’t Worry Darling gives us clues that all is not quite right with Victory, a picture-perfect 1950s-style suburb in the middle of the California desert. Sure, on this cul-de-sac all the neighbors are smiling at each other every morning, the men leave for work in their gorgeous cars at the exact same time, and the wives are always in heels and have dinner ready when their husbands get home, but the unanimity of it all is a bit eerie. Is this the American dream, or is there a hint of a nightmare?
For Alice Chambers (Pugh) and her husband Jack (Styles), life in Victory is domestic bliss. While Jack is at work at the town’s sole employer, the Victory Project, Alice is content to spend time with her neighbors, or in ballet class, or at the pool. None of the women work; they simply just enjoy lunching in their finest pearls. But Alice’s paradise is interrupted by visions she can’t quite understand.
Olivia Wilde’s second directorial effort is solidly made and doesn’t deserve to be overshadowed by the infamy of its rollout.
Alice seems happy enough to leave these visions alone, and even goes pretty far to stop herself from pursuing the clues that something isn’t quite right in Victory. But a confrontation with Frank (Chris Pine), the mysterious leader in charge of the Victory Project, sets her on the path toward uncovering a core secret that is the movie’s big reveal.
Frank is an overwhelmingly charismatic local legend. He hands out promotions and inspires the men to live by his wisdom. Wilde has said that Frank is loosely based on psychology professor turned right-wing provocateur Jordan Peterson. In Don’t Worry Darling, this isn’t a distant inspiration — Frank asks the men, “What is the enemy of progress?” Dutifully, they answer, “Chaos.” He tells them that modern society has “severed” them from their “true selves.” These echo ideas that Peterson has advanced. (Peterson predictably responded.)
Wilde is experimenting with genre films here — her first outing, Booksmart, was a sweet coming-of-age comedy that felt heartfelt and sincere. Don’t Worry Darling is also penned by Booksmart screenwriter Katie Silberman. Overall, it’s a decent effort from a filmmaker experimenting with — and managing to sketch out — a directorial voice. Some of the conversations it’s trying to have feel half-baked, but its central conceit is not: it’s trying to follow Get Out’s model of extending a social ill to its farthest metaphorical limits, transforming it into a horror.
It’s perhaps easy to attach ourselves to the Don’t Worry Darling behind-the-scenes theater because much of the intrigue has surrounded the casting. If you are puzzled over how Styles became a replacement for Shia LaBeouf, for instance, you’re not alone. What possible thing could the two have in common? The twist makes clear what LaBeouf could’ve brought to the movie: he has built an acting reputation of disquieting intensity that pops off the screen, and it’s easy to imagine how it would’ve held the movie together. Though Styles’s approach to Jack’s motivations is different, he brings to the role a requisite blankness that suits the narrative well.
I had a good time! I would watch this on an airplane. I would watch this on a rainy Saturday.
He’s not called on to do a whole lot in this movie, but the twist relies on him, and he at least does a passable job at sticking that landing. Still, with talented actors sharing the screen with him, it’s clear that Styles can’t quite hold his own here. Meanwhile, Pine lends gravitas (he makes the line “Yet here you are, preparing dinner like a good girl” a completely chilling experience), and Pugh is consistently gripping. One particular dinner party scene with Pine and Pugh as its axis immediately shows what this movie could’ve been had a more capable actor been cast in the role of Jack. But make no mistake — the rest of the cast is outshone by Pugh’s masterful performance of Alice’s curiosity, skepticism, and eventual shattering. She doesn’t just carry the whole film; she basically bench-presses it.
Some sequences of Don’t Worry Darling are wholly unnecessary. It’s fine. It’s fine! I had a good time! I would watch this on an airplane. I would watch this on a rainy Saturday. I would fund Olivia Wilde’s next movie. I think there’s something there, and I am interested in what comes of it.
None of that coheres with the air time this movie has commanded, from the start of the scandal. At first, I was thrilled to be following the developments turn by turn. Finally, celebrities were giving us mess and gossip and shade. Did you see the way Pugh’s stylists were wearing Miss Flo shirts? Do you think Styles spit on Pine in Venice? Did you see what Pugh posted when she skipped the press conference? Everything but what’s in the movie has become the talk of the town.
But even the drama is more complicated than at first blush. After Wilde said she fired LaBeouf to “protect” her set, LaBeouf claimed that he wasn’t fired, but detailed in a letter to Wilde that he quit because “your actors and I didn’t have enough time to rehearse.” LaBeouf, who is facing multiple accusations of abuse that he has denied, also released a video of Wilde asking him to come back to the project, which immediately painted Wilde as disingenuous. But a Vanity Fair interview with Wilde earlier this month claims the video was taken before Pugh expressed discomfort with LaBeouf. Meanwhile, on The Late Show this week, Wilde told Stephen Colbert that the dispute over whether LaBeouf quit or was fired comes down to semantics.
Olivia Wilde’s next project is a biopic of legendary gymnast Kerri Strug, most famous for winning Team USA the gold at the 1996 Olympics while performing with an injured ankle. Wilde is also attached to direct a holiday movie also written by Silberman, which suggests that that writer-director relationship is working for her. This is worth noting, because those consistent relationships can be crucial in how a director’s voice develops over time. (Don’t Worry Darling was shot by Matthew Libatique, who has been a close collaborator of auteur Darren Aronofosky for more than two decades.)
Making a movie that shows skill and promise is only the first step toward filmmaking longevity. You have to have people who want to work with you, who want to lend their reputation to yours. It would be a shame if a director like Wilde, working on building that reputation, got tagged with the mess surrounding this film. ●