This review originally ran in conjunction with the film’s world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.
To say that “Don’t Worry Darling” is a mixture of “The Stepford Wives” and “Get Out” is both accurate and deeply misleading. It’s accurate because Olivia Wilde’s satiric and somewhat frantic psychological thriller does borrow from films like “Stepford,” where an idealized community is one in which the women are dolls designed for male satisfaction, and “Get Out,” which uses horror trappings to grapple with timely issues of power and privilege.
But it’s misleading because there’s another film to which “Don’t Worry Darling” owes even more than it does to those two – but to even mention the other film’s name would be to give away a crucial plot twist that happens late in the film and changes everything.
So we won’t mention The Film That Shall Remain Nameless, except to say that Wilde’s embrace of its premise is not exactly handled as smoothly and seamlessly as you might hope. It’s provocative, to be sure, but it might have you walking out of the theater muttering, “now, wait a minute…” as you ponder inconsistencies and things that just don’t add up.
“Don’t Worry Darling” is bigger, bolder and more ambitious than Wilde’s sharp and satisfying directorial debut, 2019’s “Booksmart,” but it’s not nearly as sure-handed in tone as that gem. Her new film gives you plenty to admire, from its look to yet another strong performance from the reliably terrific Florence Pugh, and just as much that is frustrating. If Jordan Peele is the current gold standard when it comes to provocation under the cover of mainstream genre cinema, Wilde still has some catching up to do.
Still, there’s an arresting vision on display for much of “Don’t Worry Darling.” It’s the tale of a young couple, Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles), who live in the desert community of Victory, a bucolic oasis that feels like the fever dream of “Mad Men” era account exec: snazzy late ’50s convertibles, immaculately manicured lawns, cul de sacs full of spacious ranch houses where perfectly coiffed and clad stay-at-home housewives spend their mornings cooking and cleaning, their afternoons shopping and their evenings meeting their husbands at the door, cocktail in hand, as the men return from work.
Victory, it turns out, is a company town for a company called the Victory Project, whose exact mission is deliberately vague (“progressive materials”?), though it’s obviously important and has something to do with that hill outside town where all the men head every morning.
If the premise itself doesn’t send up a few red flags, the movie’s visual style will: Victory is outfitted down to the last Egg chair by production designer Katie Byron and shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique with such a sheen that every frame is deeply suspicious. (Mid-century modern has never looked creepier.)
Alice vaguely knows things aren’t right, but only vaguely; even if she’s not entirely comfortable, she participates in what seem to be nightly revels, wild parties where the liquor flows, the women compete to see who can keep a glass balanced on their head the longest and the men carouse so enthusiastically that they almost seem to be fueled by desperation.
But who could be desperate in Victory? After all, the charismatic head of the Victory Project, Frank (Chris Pine) tells them that they’re changing the world, and who are they to argue?
Jack is all-in on the program, and he’s clearly got a bright future; why, Frank even looks the other way when Jack and Alice sneak into his office for some quick, torrid sex in the middle of an elegant poolside soiree. (Well, he doesn’t exactly look the other way – he watches, but at least he doesn’t stop the happy couple from their happy coupling.)
Alice, though, starts to have her doubts. Why do all the husbands and wives have suspiciously similar stories about how they met? Why won’t Jack ever take a day off work and play hooky with her? Why are people lying to her about the neighbor she saw slit her own throat and fall off the roof? What happened to that airplane she saw crash behind the hill outside town? Is she hallucinating, or are the walls really closing in on her?
It wouldn’t be fair to answer any of those questions in a review; suffice it to say that the more Alice questions what’s around her, the worse things get. As her reality spins out of control, it feels as if Wilde herself is struggling with the movie’s tonal shifts.
With her finely calibrated mixture of ferocity and doubt, Pugh grounds the film as a woman who won’t be gaslit but may find that the alternatives are even worse. It’s her movie, even if actor Styles gets to turn into pop star Harry Styles (a role in which he seems more comfortable) and dance on a big stage in one particularly boisterous scene.
But as Alice’s life gets messier and more confusing, so does the increasingly uneven movie. Eventually, there’s an explanation for everything that happens, and it’s meant to feel both monstrous and timely. But while that particular explanation has been used to great effect in that movie we can’t mention, the “Don’t Worry Darling” screenplay by Katie Silberman (“Booksmart”) from a story by Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dkye and Silberman leaves way too many loose ends; the revelation doesn’t help the resolution, although it does give Wilde, who plays a supporting role, one of the most unsettling and moving scenes in the movie.
As a director, Wilde does an effective job of provocation, and the movie may stir up its share of worthy conversations if people can move beyond the gossip that threatened to overshadow everything else before the theatrical release. But it feels as if there’s a better movie in here somewhere, lost beneath the wild-eyed freneticism and the unsatisfying exposition.
Warner Bros. and New Line will release “Don’t Worry Darling” theatrically on Friday, Sept. 23.