Directed by Olivia Wilde
Written by Katie Silberman, Shane Van Dyke, and Carey Van Dyke
Spoilers: moderate with some choice redactions, though the main thrust of it is, I presume, supposed to be pretty obvious
I hate the conversation around Don't Worry Darling, the kind of teacup tempest that seems to afflict certain directors' movies more than it seems to afflict certain others', and which, thanks to the cancer that is social media, quickly evolved into a drama (in the pettiest, most high schoolish sense of that term) that eclipsed the film before it was even released. (The bizarre part is that it was probably more effective marketing than anything else attached to it, insofar as Don't Worry Darling has done reasonably okay for its breed of mid-tier non-franchise IP.) It's been astoundingly uninteresting, yet somehow inescapable, generating a perspective-free battle zone for people's sad parasocial attachments, with Florence Pugh fans fighting on one front of a boring war, and Harry Styles anti-fans fighting on another. The latter at least has sometimes been amusing, though I don't know what one is meant to expect from a manufactured pop-star-turned-actor, whereas the modestly-funny-before-it-became-a-meme thing that he said about his movie being great because it's, like, a movie, was pretty clearly meant to express the same inane crap every film professional is constantly whining about, only (slightly) less articulately. I mean, I barely know who Harry Styles is, and let's be crystal clear about this: that makes me cool. Or old—increasingly the same thing as we witness the rise of the uncoolest generation, assuming the children driving this phenomenon aren't fully 40 years old themselves—but at least cooler than anyone spending time thinking about how much they don't like Harry Styles. I'm also at a loss to fully understand why Pugh, a talented and promising but at present only somewhat above-replacement-level actor, has so many rabidly devoted fans.
Anyway, it's tedious and apt to raise my hackles—I have not forgotten the snide dismissal Reminiscence got, you fucks—and in some respects my hackles were even vindicated, enough so that I like the movie, though the more I think about it, which is obviously a mistake, the more I know I'll regret locking myself into giving a gentlewoman's C to director and co-producer Olivia Wilde. This is a disclosure of my own bias, I suppose, in that I feel about Wilde the way a lot of people feel about Jordan Peele—a comparison I fear she would appreciate too much, which maybe points towards some of her problems—in that I strongly believe she has the chops, but maybe she shouldn't be the dominant producer of her own movies, and while she isn't also her own writer, it would be awfully nice if she had a better editorial sense for what her narratives require, or just had access to stronger screenplays in the first instance.
Don't Worry Darling is, it turns out, a disaster of a screenplay. The good news, sort of, is this only fully unveils itself towards the end—it can be occasionally nettlesome before that, but while I'd weakly claim that the movie never gets bad (I was, at least, never bored with it), the screenplay gets exrcuciatingly and inexplicably bad, opening up like a sore that you compulsively want to poke at even though doing so is agonzingly painful. The mechanical underpinnings of the film are inordinately busted, and the twist, while sensible in its generalities, and so obvious that I genuinely believe the movie wants you to get ahead of it (have you heard of a little movie called The Stepford Wives? how about a little show called Black Mirror), turns out to line up so poorly with what's come before in its specifics that it's essentially anti-explanatory.
We begin well enough, at least, finding ourselves in a planned community somewhere in the Southwestern desert called "Victory." At first blush, Victory appears to be affiliated in some manner with the government, inasmuch as the time period appears to be the junction of the 1950s with the 1960s, and the men who live there are described as engineers and all of them work at the same place in a mountain base out in the wasteland, doing some type of very secret Cold War-style research. Whatever affiliation it has, however, is imperceptible besides the cult of personality established by Victory's own creator and administrator, Frank (Chris Pine). In Victory, there lives Alice Chambers (Pugh), a housewife to her husband Jack Chambers (Styles). Presently, Alice is perfectly able to believe she's been invited to reside in utopia, her life defined by a comfortable and stylish house, her husband's rising status, her pleasant if facile friendships with her neighbors Bunny (Wilde) and Violet (Sydney Chandler), and, of course, the frequent cunnilingus.
But not everything here is sweetness and light, a fact that Alice is violently confronted with when she witnesses the suicide of another friend, Margaret (KiKi Wayne), which she is told was not actually a suicide, though she saw the blade go across her throat and everything; and this is on top of the subtler but even more curious defects in her awareness that have been cropping up the past few weeks, in particular the daylight hallucination, or vision, that had originally told her that her friend was about to kill herself. (And so we run into a slight problem already, in that while we're invited to perceive "they're lying about the suicide!" as gaslighting, the film has already established, several times, that Alice's senses can't be trusted. But partial credit, anyway, for never using the word "gaslighting," and, also, for this actually being gaslighting.) Well, Alice knows that Margaret hasn't been well since taking a stroll out in the wasteland—a forbidden zone, to definitely coin a phrase—whereupon she lost her young son. Driven by her own sense that something is awry, plus another vision, Alice follows Margaret's footsteps out to the base, and what she sees—more like what she experiences—threatens to bring all of Victory crashing down around her. And certainly Frank can't have that.
So it's basically that Hank Scorpio episode of The Simpsons, except with hallucinations and now the focus is tight on Marge (and also now Homer is hot). Moderate spoilers, right? Of course there's something wrong with "Victory," something that you could start guessing at from the mere fact it's 2022 out here and it's set in a fuzzy turn-of-the-60s neverwhen in there, a place where things are just loose enough to still be enjoyable, but retrograde enough to fit somebody's particular ideas about correct gender roles and pleasurable aesthetics. It could, conceivably, go in a more straightforward direction (remarkably, the "straightforward direction" would have been more surprising), but it doesn't, which we'll discuss later on. (I'll simply note here that, with the appropriate adjustments, telling them "you died and now you're in limbo" would've been a more credible and enduring cover story.)
In the meantime, the movie is in fact edging toward really good or even great, with Wilde patiently soaking in the vibes of the world she's created, which develops a threatening cast mainly just through context and the way certain things are filmed and framed, like the lockstep egress of a flock of multi-hued mid-century automobiles out of town and into the wastes. (Though my favorite moment involves Pine peeking in on the side of a shot that's given over mostly to black-and-yellow modernist abstraction, Frank having walked in on Alice and Jack screwing in his—that is, Frank's—bedroom, and instead of doing anything whatsoever, deciding to just stand there watching, and only long enough for Alice to see him watching.) Wilde has a grand time exploiting Matthew Libatique's sunny 60s cinematography, with its dissonant sensation of coziness and breezy style: it feels "off" enough that it's never quite cozy or breezy, in ways that are hard to a put a finger on—too sharp, perhaps, or too bright, or perhaps simply too extravagantly arrayed with lens flares. Katie Byron's production design slides off into its own uncanny valley, though whether Victory feels fake because it's a movie set inside a constructed reality, or it feels fake because it's an artificial enclave attempting to recreate suburban splendor out in the desert and therefore couldn't feel like anything besides a contemporary pulp-SF rendition of a colony on Mars is, at first, impossible to say; Arianne Phillips's costuming serves the same purpose, elegant and poppy, but combining with Libatique's photography to look too elegant and poppy, like a shiny, glossy fashion magazine spread defined above all by the models' plastic smiles. The most aggressive, overt thing is the one that's not part of the diegesis, an abrasive score by John Powell that bleeds into equally abrasive sound design. All along, Wilde juices the underlying wrongness, with some enjoyable freakout imagery that ranges from the merely weird to the full-blown phantasmogoric, leaning on repeated motifs, particularly glass and overhead shots that capture an iris, or recreate the geometry of an iris, which winds up with a literal symbolic meaning that isn't terribly interesting, and if it has a metaphorical one, it's trite—but does look cool.
With all due disrespect to Styles, it is like a movie: if it were an episode of Black Mirror, it would be the most attractive episode of the series by an embarrassingly huge margin. I'm gratified that Wilde turns out to like the same things I do: mid-century aesthetics, Busby Berkeley numbers, sex and sexy people, cheap-but-effective psychohorror—not to mention photography and design that isn't afraid to feature, like, actual saturated colors. Above all, I adore the very particular Laser Age sci-fi energy that Wilde clamps down on like a vice, and it makes her whole film a worthwhile sit, for she never lets go of this, even when all else has been lost.
It's not perfect (we are now segueing into the salient negative). Even when it's still getting by as a piece of cinema first and piece of storytelling second, and giving Wilde a playground to explore different ways of visualizing mid-century feminine ennui as a form of encroaching madness, it has issues. For starters, we kind of have to take "mid-century feminine ennui" as a fait accompli, since Alice kind of just starts getting hysterical for no reason (I do appreciate, however, that the word "hysterical" is thrown out, and true to its setting Pugh was directed to not react to the provocation as if she were just called a cunt). This is despite a life that doesn't initially seem too oppressive, unless a couple of hours of housework every day counts, and for the most part a life that isn't even too boring. But this is never a character-driven film, nor an actor-driven one: Pugh is fine; Styles is also fine (and though I do not think Wilde's first choice, Shia LeBeouf, would have been remotely right for the main phase of the Jack role, if he'd stayed around to play the "real" Jack, I think that would've been genuinely clever casting); Pine, likewise, is fine. They hardly have an opportunity for anything else, for they are stock figures churned through an agreeable but stock scenario. And this isn't really a problem: the movie isn't trying to reinvent its wheel, and that's fine; to be what it wants, it can't. At this juncture, I could still argue that the worst thing about it is that it preempts any screen adaptation of Charlie Stross's Glasshouse.
The more surrealist touches are, at the outset, pretty great, too, but at some point Wilde begins running dry on new ideas and new ways to elaborate upon the established ones; if you've seen the trailer, I believe you've seen a glimpse of all of them. This probably has something to do with it running 123 minutes, despite not even really being Black Mirror at heart, but The Twilight Zone. This is especially true given that Alice is such an inactive (almost fascinatingly inactive) protagonist. Yeah, you can tell it has notions of several specific feminist and even humanist ideas, but it ultimately settles on a pretty darned plainjane "sexual slavery is bad" theme (the one exception is even kind of its own problem: it achieves its goal of very specifically flipping the bird to Jordan Peterson in the form of Pine's Frank, which is good and right, but it appears to have little knowledge of Peterson other than what his hairstyle looked like once, and a generic awareness that he's a weird masculinist prophet, as at no point does Frank begin weeping due to misfiring neurons or discuss the Jungian import of dreams). But then, this is where our troubles begin, and the film becomes more hole than plot.
The pivot comes a little more than halfway through; the film's most tantalizing scene is somehow also its worst, and in apparent recognition that the screenplay has been inefficient and repetitive, it sees fit to have Frank literally prompt Alice back into the story, reminding her that she's the heroine of a sci-fi parable and he's the villain, and as such they should probably interact in some way; at this point she pulls up a laundry list of inconsistencies in Victory's reality that have not, heretofore, been so much as hinted at, and seems to have come from a previous draft where she was actually diligently pursuing her mystery. This dinner scene together is unmistakably supposed to be a crucial hinge for our story, flinging us into the third act: it is an invitation to a battle of wills, proferred by the villain, and he is stoked to find in Alice a challenger (he even uses words to the effect, "I've been waiting for someone to challenge me"), and this new set of stakes vanishes the very moment in which it is introduced, never even referenced again; Frank barely even shows up afterwards! And when he does, he makes even less sense.
Nothing about the final third of Don't Worry Darling makes sense, and not in some neat, nightmarish way, but in the way that a film that's had its original third act removed in favor of another might not cohere. In any case, there's something deeply fractured here: my initial impulse was to assume Wilde was prevailed upon to reduce the runtime and she chose all the wrong scenes to delete, because as much as Don't Worry Darling is too long by twenty minutes, it also feels like its most important twenty minutes aren't actually here. Yet the sheer number of things in the first two acts that are transparently not in conversation with the twist that reorients the film speak to rather grimmer prospects, and my current working theory is that Shane & Carey Van Dyke's initial screenplay had a vastly more functional twist—I would bet a dollar that the original reveal of Don't Worry Darling was that not only was Victory not real (which, duh), but Alice wasn't "real" either, nor any of the other wives, and were instead creations within the computer simulation it turns out Victory is, which raises sci-fi-inflected questions about the construction of gender and all that good stuff, and also means that the "Victory Project's" goal was the creation of artificial hot lady life, albeit with just enough residual scientific interest in artificial personhood that Frank would be stoked to discover one of his fembots has not only discovered agency but feminism, even if now he has to put her down.
Look, that could just be Don't Worry Darling fanfiction, which is the saddest fucking thing conceivable (then again, at this point in our culture's decline, imagining new adventures for Harry Styles is practically one of the career paths guidance counselors offer in high school). The supposition there, anyway, is that this foreclosed the particular finale that Wilde wanted (something more optimistic—which I guess means she didn't keep ahold of that 70s sci-fi energy all the way through—though the funny thing here is that I'm pretty certain Alice, like, dies, which isn't even a spoiler because the narrative is clearly not aware that it's killed her). Alternatively, final screenwriter and co-producer Katie Silberman wanted to put her own stamp on the dudes' screenplay and this was what she came up with, with Wilde not really noticing or caring since her object was playing with an aesthetic and a mood. Alternatively-alternatively, this was Silberman's best fix to an even more terrible screenplay.
Whatever it is, it's at this point that everything that had been piling up in the background without posing a serious problem suddenly becomes an unsteady stack of bullshit that caves in around us—"so what's up with the plane?" "why does Victory experience earthquakes?" "why do they all go to work at the same time?" "what the fuck is Gemma Chan's deal?" "do you think nobody would notice a trauma surgeon going missing and that nobody would ever ask her live-in boyfriend where she went?" and so on, and on, for Don't Worry Darling is truly a nitpicker's paradise—and I guess the accidental sub-theme becomes "all stay-at-home spouses go crazy." Writing this review is upsettingly similar to the experience of watching it: I like it right up until I'm forced to ponder what the hell could have happened to this movie, long before Olivia Wilde and Florence Pugh even met.