There is something deeply wrong with Victory, California. Unfortunately, director Olivia Wilde doesn’t know what it is.
In Wilde’s sophomore effort “Don’t Worry Darling,” Alice, played by Florence Pugh, and Jack, played by Harry Styles, are a picture-perfect young couple situated in a picture-perfect mid-century community. Each morning, Jack races off to his undefined engineering job at Victory headquarters, a secretive organization whose function is unknown to his wife.
He leaves Alice to a pleasant, if repetitive, routine of shopping, swimming, ballet lessons and domestic chores, eagerly preparing for their reunion upon his return each night. But Alice realizes Victory community founder Frank, played by Chris Pine, is keeping secrets, and she slowly uncovers the menacing reality of her pretty, predictable surroundings.
Florence Pugh’s performance as Alice is one of the film’s greatest strengths. She carries “Don’t Worry Darling” with admirable confidence and strikes just the right tone as Alice’s understanding of her situation develops and her terror grows. As Jack, Harry Styles is competent, but not an adequate scene partner for an actor as skilled as Pugh.
The film is undeniably visually beautiful, with Katie Byron’s production design and Arianne Phillips’ costumes rendering the 1950s era in gorgeous detail. Wilde also creates some striking imagery through the visions that inform Alice she is being deceived. She sees hypnotic hallucinations of synchronized dancers and undergoes bizarre experiences, at one point being pressed into a pane of glass like an insect on display as the walls of her home literally close in.
Unfortunately, these visuals are largely meaningless. Seeing Alice wrap her head in cling film is memorable, but ultimately disappoints when the significance of the unnerving act is never made clear. Wilde appears to drop hints as to the reality of Alice’s situation early in the film, but when the truth is revealed near the end, it becomes apparent that these hints have little meaningful plot function beyond inducing a sense of agitation.
The film’s thesis is likewise weakly executed. It is clear that “Don’t Worry Darling” wants to be a biting condemnation of misogyny and its sinister manifestations, but its politics are so obvious that it fails to offer any new or necessary insight into the issue. Of course Victory’s retrograde patriarchy turns out to be a bad thing — this is nothing groundbreaking.
Furthermore, perpetrators of inequality within the film are so exaggerated in their evil that any effort to engage with covert displays of sexism is totally flattened. The misogyny is overt and grotesque, and the film lacks both subtlety and a meaningful understanding of how gender dynamics have functioned in the past and continue to function in the present.
One of the film’s greatest weaknesses is its disinterest in understanding its setting on a deep level. Mid-century suburbia is easily unsettling in and of itself, but its power to unnerve is largely ignored in favor of showy clues that Alice is being deceived as to the nature of her environment.
Alice finds that an eggshell is missing its contents and looks on as a plane disappears from sight in the middle of the desert, but we don’t see Alice struggle with the passive gender role she plays or the bore of her daily routine — in fact, if you’re not put off by the uncanny homogeneity, her routine looks sort of enviable.
Alice’s pretty life looks too appealing. She is being lied to, but the oppressive manifestations of the lie aren’t sufficiently visible within Victory’s gender hierarchy. This detracts from the film’s ideological weight. What is the point of the setting if it’s not going to be interrogated?
The film’s production and press tour were fraught with drama and reports of strained relationships between the cast and creative teams. While the quality of the film itself deserves to be evaluated independently of behind-the-scenes issues, its few merits aren’t strong enough to withstand the controversy surrounding its release.
Overall, “Don’t Worry Darling” does not live up to its own ambitions. Wilde delivers a redundant social statement through an incoherent plot, rarely delving deeper than Victory’s shiny surface.