“There is beauty in control. There is grace in symmetry. We move as one.”
Even though it so earnestly errs towards being mysterious, Don’t Worry Darling doesn’t try to hide what it’s about either, and the themes come through loud and clear. The film is a resounding and rebuffed response to the continued exploits of the patriarchy, fueled by the extremist alt-right movement of the now, and it brings to light the idyllic kind of life and white picket landscape on display in early sitcoms where a sexy and complacent wife leads to a lovely life. That’s the pretty portrait we see from the onset. But there’s more brewing beneath the surface. I found Don’t Worry Darling derivative at times, but nonetheless fascinating and well crafted. It’s so much better than you’ve heard.
Surrounded by the optimism and commercialism of 1950s architecture (the production design here is gorgeous), Alice (Florence Pugh) happily plays the role of the stay at home wife, as do the rest of the women residing in the company town known as The Victory Project. Each morning she brews coffee and fries bacon and eggs for her husband Jack (Harry Styles). Each morning he drives off into the restricted desert as she, and the rest of the women in the cul-de-sac of a land development, waves off her hubby before getting to cleaning and homemaking and early afternoon cocktails until preparing dinner. The skies are always blue and the grass is greener on this side, but Alice seems to have visions of another place. It’s darker there. Down the rabbit hole she dives headfirst.
Alice wants to be a good, complacent, well-mannered wife. To take care of her hardworking husband. After all, her friends seem to thrive participating in that very role. But she’s observant and knows something is off. She puts the pieces together, challenges boundaries, and sees a few things that she shouldn’t along the way. But her own sanity is gaslit by the intensely creepy yet coercive and charismatic Frank (Chris Pine, delivering the film’s best performance). Frank is clean cut, shaven, well dressed. As are the rest of the men in the community. He’s the kind of man who can string together a lot of words that sound good without really saying anything clear either, like you’d expect from a crooked politician, but he’s also convincing enough to actively engage people to sign up for the social contract that comes with living in Victory. He can be gentle or off the rails. Is this where the strong-willed go to thrive? Or is this where the weak go to feel strong? It’s a foggy question that immediately becomes clear after the blinders are lifted.
For all of the mess the film had been mired by in the press, it didn’t keep me from enjoying just about every aspect of the picture. The performances are solid, and while Styles still feels so stiff for someone who’s such a natural in front of thousands, he has the perfect look for the character and the twists of the story (call me crazy, but he fits the role better than Shia LaBeouf would have…his lean frame and clean cut look is Sinatra-esque). The cinematography by Matthew Libatique is stunning, capturing car chases and monologues and colors and B&W visions in a way that seamlessly blend together. Libatique is one of the best we have today. And while many have criticized Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial effort as essentially being forcefully muddled instead of carefully shaken and stirred, I thought her direction and the editing from Affonso Gonçalves reinforced the confusion felt by Alice, and that we’re then able to understand how hysterical she’s made to feel by the one she loves. The walls close in on her, quite literally, and her autonomy is at stake. It’s a visceral experience.
My biggest gripe is that I still don’t know who Olivia Wilde is as a filmmaker. Booksmart was brilliant and one of my favorites from 2019, but it’s still simply Superbad with female leads. With Don’t Worry Darling, Wilde changes genres while making what feels like a spinoff of modern day horror from Jordan Peele, channeling the spirit of someone who’s seen Get Out one too many times, wondering how that could translate elsewhere and from a different POV. She’s a talented filmmaker and storyteller, tackling a highbrow concept that’s buzzed on idealism and antiquated concepts of masculinity, all mashed together in a structure that reduces a woman to a thing instead of acknowledging her as a person or a whole.
Don’t Worry Darling harkens back to the spiraling, fantastical realism of Alice in Wonderland, and it’s a genuine whirlwind early on. I just wish that it had embraced and taken a more personal approach, as Scorsese did with 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; by the time the film ends you’d be hard-pressed to believe that old film might not have been a better suited title. The raw beauty of Don’t Worry Darling is how it seems so perfect and otherworldly; it’s believable in that way. This flawed endeavor understands emotions, the ramifications of confusion, and the final shot is as relieving as anything I’ve seen in a picture this year. The tension builds incessantly until we hear an exasperated breath. It’s so much better than I expected, and so damn timely, for the here and the now and the there and the then.
“They’re lying about everything.”
Rating: 4 out of 5