Don't Worry Darling
Stunning to look at and featuring a phenomenal performance by Florence Pugh, Olivia Wilde's second film as a director always demands attention.
October 06, 2022
Conformity rarely bodes well in cinema. Whenever everyone's dressing the same, little boxes litter the landscape or identical white-picket fences stretch as far as the eye can see, that perception of perfection tends to possess a dark underbelly. The Stepford Wives demonstrated that. Pleasantville, Blue Velvet and Vivarium all did as well. Yes, there's a touch of conformity in movies about the evils of and heralded by conformity; of course there is. That remains true when Florence Pugh (Black Widow) and Harry Styles (Eternals) navigate an ostensibly idyllic vision of retro suburbia in a desert-encased enclave — one that was always going to unravel when the movie they're in is called Don't Worry Darling. Don't go thinking that this handsome and intriguing film doesn't know all of this, though. Don't go thinking that it's worried about the similarities with other flicks, including after its secrets are spilled, either.
It'd be revealing too much to mention a couple of other movies that Don't Worry Darling blatantly recalls, so here's a spoiler-free version: this is a fascinating female-focused take on a pair of highlights from two decades-plus back that are still loved, watched and discussed now. That's never all that Olivia Wilde's second feature as a filmmaker after 2019's Booksmart is, but it feels fitting that when it conforms in a new direction, it finds a way to make that space its own. That's actually what Pugh's Alice thinks she wants when Don't Worry Darling begins. The film's idealised 1950s-style setting comes with old-fashioned gender roles firmly in place, cocktails in hand as soon Styles' Jack walks in the door come quittin' time and elaborate multi-course dinners cooked up each night, with its protagonist going along with it all. But she's also far from keen on having a baby, the done thing in the company town that is Victory. It'd curtail the noisy sex that gets the neighbours talking, for starters.
Immaculately clothed and coiffed women happily playing dutiful housewives in a cosy sitcom-esque dream of America generations ago: that's Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman's (also Booksmart) entry point; however, they waste zero time in showing how rebelling in her own child-free way isn't enough to quell Alice's nagging and growing doubts about utopia. There's much to get her querying, such as the earth-shaking sounds that rumble when Victory's men are at work, doing top-secret business on "progressive materials" out in the sandy expanse. There's the reflections in the mirror that briefly take on a life of their own, too — starting in a ballet class that's about retaining control, coveting symmetry and never upsetting the status quo far more than dancing. And, there's the pushed-aside Margaret (KiKi Layne, The Old Guard) after she disrupts a company barbecue.
All the rules enforced to keep Victory's women in their places, and the cult-like wisdom that town and company founder Frank (Chris Pine, All the Old Knives) constantly spouts, are also inescapable. So is the force with which asking questions or daring to be different is publicly nixed, as Alice quickly discovers. And, it's impossible to avoid how the men band together when anything or anyone causes a bump, even their own other halves. Swiftly, Alice's days scrubbing and vacuuming her Palm Springs-inspired bungalow, then sipping cocktails poolside or while window shopping with fellow Victory spouses like Bunny (Wilde, Ghostbusters: Afterlife) and Peg (Kate Berlant, A League of Their Own), fall under a shadow — not literally in such sunnily postcard-perfect surroundings, but with shade still lingering over every part of her routine. Speaking up just gets dismissed, and Frank and his underlings (including a doctor played by Timothy Simmons, aka Veep's Jonah Ryan, who is instantly unnerving thanks to that stroke of casting) have too-precise answers to her concerns.
As set to a jaggedly breathy score by John Powell (Locked Down), hell is all those drinks, chats and parties teeming with plastered-on smiles and oh-so-fake conversations. It's also the idea that deviating from the norm is an act of betrayal. Hell is the glitching existence that Alice finds herself in, in other words, as her suspicions won't subside and the urge to investigate and challenge keeps swelling. When it comes to showing the cracks fracturing Victory's gleaming facade, Don't Worry Darling moves fast — plenty of other movies have spent more time in the illusion of domestic bliss before shattering it, and Wilde smartly knows that her audience don't need to luxuriate in all that glitters to care about why nothing truly does glisten. Her audience can't miss the mirage anyway, thanks to the stunning production design and costuming, as brightly lensed by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (The Prom).
Given how pristine that Alice's life literally looks, it's easy to see the flaws just as she does. It's easy to buy how speedily Alice's status quo starts to unfurl from there when the performance that accompanies it is so phenomenal. Pugh just keeps going from strength to strength since first earning attention in 2016's Lady Macbeth, in just her second film role, then backing it up with everything from The Little Drummer Girl and Fighting with My Family through to Midsommar and Little Women — and her anxious and alarmed work here is on par with her best. When Don't Worry Darling doesn't quite put its pieces together (when it gets repetitive with its psychological thrills in its midsection, primarily), she's the unbreakable glue still holding the movie in place. Forget the supposed feuds, screaming matches, affairs, boycotts and flying saliva, aka the picture's long list of highly publicised off-screen dramas; Wilde knows how to cast just as well as she knows how to lay impeccably manicured and yet insidiously tense scenes.
That knack for finding the right actors for the part extends to Wilde enlisting her own talents (and visibly having a whole lot of fun in the process) as the gossipy but compliant Bunny — and, yes, casting Styles as well. The pop superstar-turned-actor is meant to pale in comparison to Pugh, in a portrayal that clicks exactly as it's designed to when the twist comes. On that subject, Don't Worry Darling's big revelation is hardly difficult to predict. It also doesn't say anything new about our patriarchal society, the power that men have long wielded over women and today's toxic perspectives. Still, that doesn't make Wilde's cautionary tale any less engaging, involving and rattling. It's imperfect, but that's apt; eschewing conformity always has to be.
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