Arriving at the Venice Film Festival on a rapidly growing tidal wave of toxic buzz, Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling is neither as bad as some are clearly hoping it will be nor as good as it probably needs to be to overcome the public-relations nightmare its press rollout has become. Hearing all the rumors of a troubled set and of actors falling out with the director, one might have expected a cacophonous, cobbled-together catastrophe. If only. The film is smooth, competent, (mostly) well acted, and merely tedious.
Set in a carefully manicured, mid-century suburban utopia placed smack in the middle of a desert, Darling explores the growing self-awareness of a young housewife, Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh), whose doting husband Jack (Harry Styles) sets off every morning with all the other men to a top-secret job where he works with what is referred to only as “progressive materials.” There are overtones here of the “secret cities” of the Manhattan Project, the prefab residential communities built by the U.S. military during the development of the atom bomb. The Chambers’ neighborhood is part of something called “the Victory Project,” where everything is cleanly coordinated and regimented, where men are men and women are women, where steaks and cocktails are waiting when hubby gets home, and where the characters are rewarded with lots of happy kids and/or great sex.
Clearly, something is deeply wrong here. The wives all wave their hands in unison at their husbands. The men drive off in gleaming, uniform, multicolored cars into the desert. The women go to dance classes where they are told, “There is beauty in control. There is grace in symmetry.” On the radio, the voice of Frank (Chris Pine), the Victory Project’s leader, offers forcefully stated bromides such as “You are worthy of the life you’ve chosen.” Later, he’ll talk about how the enemy of progress is chaos. At the Venice press conference for the film, Wilde and her cast talked about how despite the period trappings of the movie, it’s really about today. “The people we are playing were real people in a world very much our own,” Pine said. He didn’t need to say it. The movie isn’t exactly subtle on this point.
So where does a story like this go when it’s obvious right from the get-go there is something deeply twisted going on under its surfaces? Cinema has already given us two versions of The Stepford Wives as well as Suburbicon and Blue Velvet and Pleasantville and any number of other films about the corrosive underbelly of pleasant, old-fashioned domesticity. (There are several other reference points one could cite for Don’t Worry Darling, but they would constitute spoilers.) Movies about utopias that turn out to be dystopias either have to find a way to make their utopias initially compelling or get things rolling in such dramatic or deranged fashion that we can’t help but be riveted by the characters’ journeys of discovery.
Don’t Worry Darling, alas, does neither of these things. It merely asks us to watch as Alice slowly realizes that something creepy lurks within the Victory Project, and that can get boring and repetitive after a while. Our protagonist’s growing awareness comes via black-and-white visions of dancing girls as well as concern for her next-door neighbor and once-close friend, Margaret (KiKi Layne), whom we learn lost her son out in the desert and hasn’t been the same since. One day, while riding the Victory trolley that carries the wives to their daily appointments, Alice sees a plane falling from the sky behind a mountain. She tells the driver and wants to go help. “I don’t go that way,” he says tensely. “That’s not my route.” This might have been a shocking moment, but the community of Victory is so oppressively ordered and precise that it comes as little surprise to us. So we watch and bide our time as Alice expresses her shock, then sets off into the desert on her own. It’s never fun when the audience is so many steps ahead of the characters.
The movie, in its own way, functions like the town of Victory itself. As a director, Wilde has a good eye, and the film’s many scenes of regimented grace have a nice visual pop. In her directorial debut, Booksmart, she used the story’s episodic structure to experiment with style and toss ideas at the screen; the film made a virtue out of chaos. Don’t Worry Darling makes a virtue out of orderliness, but that can go only so far. We keep waiting for the movie to surprise us, to shock us. We keep waiting for the chaos.
Within this framework, Pugh does nervousness and terror well, and she makes Alice’s gathering anxiety as convincing as it can be even if the script fails to give her all that many interesting things to do. As Bunny, Alice’s close friend and the wise-cracking, cocktail-guzzling den mother to the clique of Victory wives, Wilde herself seems to be having a lot of fun. Pine makes for a uniquely charismatic protofascist cult leader; the film receives a welcome jolt of energy whenever he’s onscreen. The weak link, unfortunately, is Styles, who is not without talent but who fails to give Jack the dimensionality or inner conflict the character clearly needs, especially in light of where the movie ultimately goes.
About that: This sort of picture has been done enough times that, at this point, there are a few off-the-rack explanations for what might be happening. Our minds have been fucked enough times that the modern mindfuck movie has lost much of its power to surprise, especially when it announces from its opening frames that it will be a mindfuck movie. Ultimately, Don’t Worry Darling goes for a fairly familiar twist — a revelation that will likely have already flitted across many viewers’ minds as they watched the movie. But the explanation weirdly winds up being one of the strengths of the film because Wilde brings to it enough captivating grisliness that the twist effectively reframes most of what’s come before. In other words, it brings that bit of chaos the movie has been sorely missing. Is it enough? Probably not. But it’s not a total failure, either.