Approaching a film as scrutinized as “Don’t Worry Darling,” directed by Olivia Wilde and written by Katie Silberman, is a daunting task to say the least. The past few months have been abuzz with gossip about the film’s behind-the-scenes drama, bizarre press tour and disappointing reviews.
Amid the noise, it’s easy to assume the film at the center of the controversy is a cinematic dumpster fire. However, the press surrounding “Don’t Worry Darling” obscures a movie that is far less rancid — and less interesting — than its murky reputation.
The film stars Florence Pugh as Alice Chambers, the dutiful housewife of Jack Chambers (Harry Styles), who moves into the mid-century suburban paradise of Victory with her husband. This secluded company town is filled with young married men working for the secretive “Victory Project'' which is directed by the unnervingly charming Frank (Chris Pine).
While her husband is away at work, Alice spends her days cleaning, cooking and day drinking with the other women of Victory. When he returns, the pair enjoy nights filled with sex and boozy neighborhood soirees. But as Alice begins to unmask the sinister truth behind Victory, she is gaslit and coerced at every turn.
Say what you will about the film, but one thing is certain: it looks absolutely stunning.
The set design is phenomenal. Set designer Katie Byron conjures a vision of 1950s white suburbia so perfect that it could only exist in the minds of wistfully nostalgic baby boomers. The period-accurate costumes are equally impressive and complement an already gorgeous cast. This is all captured with solid camerawork and lighting from cinematographer Matthew Libatique, creating compelling images you won’t soon forget.
Unfortunately, the admirable work of these artists is overshadowed by some notable narrative problems.
The film lacks originality, borrowing many ideas from other, better movies without expanding on them in meaningful ways. And, even when the film does manage to introduce fresh ideas, they’re scattered over acres of familiar ground. For instance, the premise and visual style call to mind Jordan Peele’s 2017 masterpiece “Get Out,” which is a particularly obvious influence.
The film can also be painfully unsubtle. Throughout the movie, Pugh’s character is given peaks at the hidden malevolence of Victory through in-your-face moments of creepiness accompanied by flashes of bizarre imagery and an overbearing score.
These moments have the unintended effect of diffusing tension. The key to effective psychological thrillers is a gradual rise in heat through at first small hints of danger, increasing in severity until the tension finally boils over at the climax. This grants the audience a nail-biting payoff. Where she should practice restraint, Wilde employs a heavy hand as if she doesn’t trust the audience to recognize subtlety. These resulting moments, rather than resembling water slowly coming to a boil, are more like what you get when you splash cold water onto a searing pan; momentary sizzle which evaporates into nothing.
This exacerbates the film’s pacing problems in its dull, repetitive middle third. Here, it feels stranded on a plateau without direction. The film casts aside what shreds of tension had been built up to this point and is stuck running in circles until the film’s climax — and big twist — can finally provide some much needed focus.
Pugh’s performance helps to smooth over some of these issues. She elevates the story with her strong command of craft and manages to sell the audience on the stakes even when the script falls short, bringing desperately needed dynamism to a film that would be severely lacking without her.
Pine likewise delivers a delicious performance as the alluringly malicious Frank, who is styled after the controversial conservative advice guru Jordan Peterson. The few scenes where Pugh and Pine have the opportunity to play off each other are a delight.
But, the film is hampered by Pugh’s co-star Styles. The relationship between Alice and Jack Chambers is central to the film’s story, but Styles is outclassed by Pugh in every sense, unable to reach her level of intensity or expression. Styles holds his own in other films like “My Policeman,” but placing him in a scene opposite Pugh makes him a limp fish by comparison. If the role had been cast differently, an actor capable of keeping pace with Pugh might have made their scenes together more compelling.
To its credit, the film’s themes of misogyny and the dangers of incel culture are quite engaging. The movie’s horror is derived from the theft of women's autonomy in service of male power fantasies disguised as domestic bliss. When Alice begins to see through this guise, the male authority figures of Victory gaslight and infantilize her. I can’t help but wonder if there may be a connection between the film’s themes, its female director and its dismal critical reception considering that to this day, most film critics are men.
All things considered, “Don’t Worry Darling” is “ok” and nothing more. While there are many choices to criticize the movie about, it’s nowhere near the disaster the release buzz cast it as. While “Don’t Worry Darling” certainly wouldn’t be my first recommendation, it’s a technically impressive and moderately entertaining movie that might be worth a watch on an uneventful night in.
“Don’t Worry Darling” is currently streaming on HBO Max.