Hollywood is littered with examples of filmmakers getting into relationships with an actor on set, causing friction with the rest of the production, as well as stoking a spectacle of drama and conflict that almost always overshadows the work. Most famous of this occurring was Ingrid Bergman’s affair with Roberto Russellini, which was unveiled just before the release of their film Stromboli (1950).
Don’t Worry Darling is the rare film where the situation involved a female director, with all the nuances that come with that difference. There will no doubt be tomes written about this production, but, for now, let’s simply discuss the text itself.
After the rapturous acclaim of 2019’s Booksmart, there was a bidding war for the follow-up feature of Olivia Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman, who have returned with one of the most confusing and underbaked films in years. Where their debut was an enjoyable yet frictionless teen comedy, Don’t Worry Darling is a big swing, period thriller that is after sweeping ideas on the modern world. Ideas that become exceedingly unclear the further away you get from the theatre.
Taking place in the 1950s, in a company town for the mysterious corporation Victory that is driven to create a new world, helmed by visionary Frank (Chris Pine), Don’t Worry Darling centres on young newlyweds Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles). The couple is very much in love and can barely keep their hands off each other.
As Jack goes off to work (at the same time as the rest of the men on the street in one of many gorgeous sequences from cinematographer Matthew Libatique), Alice is left to clean and busy herself at home, which she seems content with. This seemingly ‘perfect’ life for Alice begins to come crashing down as she seeks to discover the town’s true nature and the work being done by Victory.
Don’t Worry Darling is intended as a social thriller but is lacking any clear vision or identity in its story, which causes issues with the well-intentioned and well-executed design of the film. It forces its themes and motifs to become immediately literal. The idea of Alice’s world crashing down around her is shown with an unexplained tremor while she and Jack are in the kitchen in the very first scene. Not every film needs to be subtle and coy with its storytelling, but it’s a crucial element to the thrillers Don’t Worry Darling is cribbing from, so when you remove that element from the story, you better be doing it to heighten another aspect to make it an enjoyable experience.
The film is also doing itself a disservice by avoiding the story’s more thriller and horror aspects, which were crucial pillars in similar films like The Stepford Wives (1975) and Rosemary’s Baby (1967). The film has lazily been compared to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) due to its socially conscious thriller nature, however, what allows Get Out to thrive as a piece of social commentary is how it fits within the structures of the genre, something Don’t Worry Darling is sorely lacking.
Florence Pugh is doing the most with what the film offers, using her established skills at conveying palpable tension over the course of a film’s duration. Unfortunately, in contrast to Katharine Ross in Stepford Wives and Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, Pugh’s Alice is somehow always behind on what the audience knows, even when we are both unsure what’s going on. Perspective is usually the most important tool that is weaponised by filmmakers in these thrillers but is so muddled in this seemingly first-person narrative with Alice that the film becomes increasingly tiresome.
Pugh isn’t helped in the film by her partner in marriage, Jack, played by pop superstar Harry Styles. The pop star is a classic example of an arena-sized bundle of charisma and coiffed hair that is unable to translate into the film, offering nothing compelling in the crucial two-hander scenes he shares with Pugh. There is also a serious lack of chemistry between the pair which proves fatal in many of these romantic scenes.
Some of the controversy surrounding the film has been about Shia LaBeouf’s role as Jack shifting over to Styles late in pre-production, which would’ve been equally as baffling a casting choice. That being said, with no hints towards spoilers, the final reveal makes the casting of Styles so utterly bizarre and only emphasises the baffling decision.
To Wilde’s credit, she has created a lush aesthetic with a suite of impressive visual flourishes with the help of Libatique and production designer Katie Byron, but it’s unfortunately always in service of a truly lacking script. There is much to like in the design of the film and will surely allow Wilde to take another bigger budget swing like this, hopefully with a tighter and more compelling story.
However, Don’t Worry Darling is so smugly showing off its production design and recreation of 1950s America, instead of placing the story within its lavish designs. This is no better exemplified than in the opening minutes of the film where we are shown Alice’s hallucinations. No time is spent establishing the baseline world we find ourselves in before the film is trying to upend it. This would be an interesting decision if the film chose to do anything with the extra time afforded by speeding through the standard opening to most thrillers, but it doesn’t.
The film is caught up in its own withholding plot structures that never let the ideas ferment in any way. Everything feels surface level because to address the nature of the film would be giving the game away. It’s hard not to see the film in a similar way to M Night Shyamalan’s unsuccessful films like The Happening (2008) or 2015’s The Visit (although that movie has been reclaimed since release), but even that honestly feels like a compliment.
By withholding its reveal until the end, the film doesn’t allow itself to examine the implications of the world it has spent two hours crafting, preferring instead to leave the audience shocked. We are instead left confused by these decisions. In a film so heavy-handed in its choice of motifs (there is enough humming and circular imagery in this film to die from sigh-induced exhaustion), is it confounding how little air is given to its final revelations.
Don’t Worry Darling’s central issue is ultimately the striving to be a discourse movie for 2022, but without any modern ideas worth exploring. There isn’t anything new here that wasn’t explored in feminist texts 60 years ago (the film does not deserve the waves of feminist retaliatory think pieces it will stoke). This wasn’t an issue with the filmmaker’s previous film Booksmart, a low-stakes, fun teen comedy that was without friction, opting to always play it safe socially and politically.
In Don’t Worry Darling, however, Wilde and Silberman are attempting to grasp at something outside their reach. One of the most exciting things Hollywood can do is give a large budget to give creatives the opportunity to take risks. Whether those risks land or not is up to audiences to decide. Don’t Worry Darling is a strange mix of massive risks and unfortunate turns to safety that will ultimately leave you somewhere in the flat, uninteresting middle.
Don’t Worry Darling is in theatres now.