Let’s be honest with ourselves. Drama that unfolds during the making of a film, or during its release, is not a good thing. The memes on Twitter may be excellent but there’s nothing more disappointing for cinephiles when something they’re looking forward to is mired in controversy big or small. Big being the DC fans who were getting hyped for Ezra Miller’s solo outing as the Flash, small being Brad Pitt’s divorce distractions. And here comes Don’t Worry Darling.
This movie gave us an excellent menagerie of memes. Director Olivia Wilde and her cast have stoked a frenzy featuring alleged screaming matches, affairs, and even a spit take. It’s been fun but frankly, these behind-the-scenes shenanigans can potentially turn out to be more interesting and or entertaining than the movie itself. Even though there are some good ideas and effort on screen, that is what has ultimately transpired. Annoyingly.
Alice Chambers (played byFlorence Pugh) has it all. She has her loving husband Jack (Harry Styles), her next-door best friend Bunny (Wilde), and a home in an idyllic company town in the desert led by the enigmatic Frank (Chris Pine) and his wife Shelly (Gemma Chan). It’s all perfect, right up until Alice starts asking questions. What exactly is Jack’s job at the Victory Project? What is the Victory Project? Why am I losing my mind? Simple questions that build up to a breakdown of reality that leaves Alice worrying that nothing around her is actually real.
Don’t Worry Darling immediately gets points for having a point at the end of it. Many suspense or psychological thrillers screw themselves by leaving plot-related questions unanswered and leaving its ending open to the interpretation of the audience. Thankfully, this one delivers on the tension it’s been accumulating during the first two-thirds of the runtime. And despite the film leaning too heavily into artistic and abstract symbolism (more on that shortly) that may lead one to think otherwise, it does resolve itself with a closed and concise payoff. Does that payoff work?
Leading up to that end, we’re treated to a very stylish production. Director Wilde and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, Birds of Prey) have gone to great lengths to showcase 1950s Californian suburbia in presentation and aura. The sun is hot, the water sparkles and the grass is a lush green. Everyone is cheerful, confidently and eagerly living the American dream with men and women fulfilling their assigned roles in society. You can tell where the inspiration came from and yes, this has The Stepford Wives written all over it in both narrative and setting. It also calls back with a very explicit nod to Camazotz from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time where suburban conformity serves as a facade for a state of entrapment. It’s a whitewash of a whitewash of period storytelling and it’s beautifully well done.
Selling all of it is a standout performance by Florence Pugh who is not only likable and holds your attention throughout but also exudes genuine conflict and dismay at finding herself having to question the world around her. You feel for her and the passion she has for Jack and the greater community. The one half of a power couple that is distraught yet determined while experiencing intense discomfort. Cast props also go to the excellent Chris Pine. It’s incredibly refreshing to see him in an antagonistic role and he offers intensity in small, controlled and concentrated doses.
Oliva Wilde, Gemma Chan, and Nick Kroll as Bunny’s husband Bill, bring up the rear with confidence but sadly suffer from a lack of adequate screen time. Harry Styles is…fine. The role of a loving husband that’s torn between being receptive to his wife’s needs, but fearful of upsetting the established order, is not a difficult one to play in the grand scheme. He has good chemistry with Pugh and with the revelations that transpire in terms of his character, he’s not being asked to overexert himself.
What is overexerting itself is the film’s audio. In terms of mixing, this is a very bad cocktail. John Powell was clearly taking notes while watching Nope recently as his musical score for Don’t Worry Darling is incredibly reminiscent of composer Michael Abel’s work on Jordan Peele movies. Single instruments and vocals sting the atmosphere, rising and falling to distinguish a disturbance in the fabric of Alice’s reality. The score is fine but not when it’s having to compete with an onslaught of 50s big band jazz and rock n’ roll that clashes with it. It makes a right mess in the ear.
This leads into Don’t Worry Darling’s biggest problem and that is the supplementation of world mechanics and building for abstract motifs. There’s surreal imagery spread across the film that not just plays into what Alice thinks she’s seeing but that also plays a supposed role in how this world works. It does not work. It’s distracting and by dedicating time to them, it leaves space for plot holes to open up. This is what makes and then breaks the payoff. The payoff is topical and not an overreach of our expectations, but sparing it a second thought results in the cracks widening to the point where you’re frustratingly asking questions of your own. None that should be arising in a production of this calibre.
Don’t Worry Darling is certainly watchable and at times enjoyable. Wilde’s second directorial outing continues to demonstrate her talent and she flourishes with help of a capable cast. However, like the story it’s telling, its faults linger in one’s mind until they replace satisfaction with frustration. There’s no amount of delicious drama that can make up for a frustrating film.