With its vibrancy, immaculate costuming, and handsome set design, Olivia Wilde’s sophomoric directorial effort is certainly nice enough to look at. Unfortunately, that’s where it ends. Despite a clear and abrasive want for Don’t Worry to Darling to mean something, anything, at all, it instead is little more than a vapid, vacant, attempt to take a stab at telling audiences why it’s important while offering no nuance, introspection, or worthwhile storytelling to back it all up. It’s mere window dressing, a shlocky, derivative piece of filmmaking that takes lessons learned in collegiate Feminism 101 and attempts to make a meal of them when really they’re meant to be a starter course. While Booksmart was a promising debut and Wilde possesses chops behind the camera, Don’t Worry Darling is a disastrous example of what happens when your want to tell an important story and sacrifices the ability to tell a good one.
Florence Pugh (amazing, as always) plays Alice and is seemingly living an enjoyable, if stifled, life as a 50’s era housewife, living in a town that houses workers dedicated to the mysterious Victory project led by the even more enigmatic Chris Pine, in a pseudo cult leader role. The husbands of the tight-knit community work tirelessly on the top-secret project while the wives are seemingly allowed to enjoy the luxury of their staged paradise. Alice’s husband, Jack (Harry Styles) adores her and the two have an endlessly vivacious appetite for one another, but no matter how many roasts are pushed off the dinner table for the pair’s carnal needs, little can distract Alice from beginning to realize the inherent wrongness of this idyllic world.
With a script by Katie Silberman and based on a story by Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke, and Silberman, the strongest moments are the opening ones. The world-building is competent and, again, aided immensely by the fine craftsperson work from production designer Katie Byron (C’mon C’mon, Color Out of Space), set director Rachael Ferrara (Booksmart), and costume designer Arianne Phillips (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…). Due to this artistry, when we are first introduced to the world of Victory, we’re immersed in the rich textiles and tactical textures. Aimless direction and writing let the setup down, resulting in aesthetic having to do the heavy lifting for a missing base and purpose.
Not every film has to mean something or be about a specific message but, typically, the best stories are the ones that have a point or an assured sense of the story they’re telling, articulated through tone, writing, and performances. And while Pugh muscles through with an alluring performance as a woman being constantly gaslit about her existence and Pine is captivating in a role that, inevitably, goes nowhere, the actors are largely let down by a script that’s asking for a lot of interpretation of vague suggestions and meanderings.
The world is inherently sexist, yes. And yes, women have often been stripped of bodily autonomy by men who believe they either deserve better, know more, or are subliminally taught to expect poised but relatable perfection from their spouses. That is what the film is trying to say, but it’s trying so, so, hard that it’s too easy to see through the artifice and instead get a sense of smug satisfaction and saying something we already know, this time with directionless planes, incomprehensible black and white, psychedelic interludes where dancers pinwheel their legs, and hallucinogenic moments where Alice is suffocated – from enclosed spaces or plastic wrap – because, you know.
The rest of the cast is sprawling, with Nick Kroll, Gemma Chan, and, especially Kiki Layne as the catalyst character, being given very little to do but stand around in impressive period-style clothing. Styles is asked to jump into a role that demands an actor who, well, has had to act before but also has an innate, sinister charisma so that we’re always second-guessing his motives, his intentions, and loyalty to Alice. He’s serviceable in background moments where he’s meant to play off the energy of the room, corralled by other, better, actors who allow him to share their orbit enough to come across as well-suited for the 50s attire and debauchery. However, any moment where he’s meant to act alone or, even worse, just against Pugh, strips any veneer from the role to showcase a performer wildly out of his depth.
That’s not even the worst part though, especially as we enter a third act that spirals in twists and turns, conspiracies, and even more egregious messaging without meaning. What needs to feel like a fever dream ends up feeling like an ad. A film that is hurtling itself from one specific moment to the next (it’s hard not to feel like the film was made for its trailer) stalls out quickly with a script that drags us reluctantly along. Despite the mystery, there is no intrigue. Despite the trials, Alice goes through there’s no palpable rage. Don’t Worry Darling sputters and fails because, for all it thought it was amounting to, it never backs up what it’s trying to tell with any level of substance.
Don’t Worry Darling is out in theaters now. Watch the trailer below.