“Don’t Worry Darling” is an excellent example of how many moving parts of a film must come together to deliver something impressive and engaging. Director Olivia Wilde delivers a movie with lots of stunning visual touches, an overall decent (if belabored) theme and a strong cast of performers, and yet, even with all of this assembled, “Don’t Worry Darling” still feels less than. Its overall messaging feels like a pulled punch, while the story manages to be simultaneously obvious and convoluted. There are lots of good ideas and sequences in the movie, but the parts never amount to much more than just that — parts.
Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) live a picture-perfect life in their 1950s community. While Jack works on a secret project for his boss, Frank (Chris Pine), Alice spends her days taking care of the home and ensuring that a meal and fresh cocktail are ready and waiting for her husband when he gets back from his job. Cracks appear in this picturesque veneer as Alice is haunted by nightmarish visions and starts questioning the very nature of the world in which she lives. Unfortunately, questions are discouraged in the idyllic village, and Alice finds herself in the crosshairs of powerful forces.
Written by Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke, “Don’t Worry Darling” feels like an attempt at saying something profound, but it comes up terribly short. There is the obvious messaging about sexual/gender politics at play, using the lens of bygone eras to show that what was once seen as pristine was in fact deeply rooted in ugliness, but this has been done before (and better) in other works like “The Stepford Wives” or even “Pleasantville.” Although the struggle for power amidst an inherently sexist system is a timeless message, “Don’t’ Worry Darling” doesn’t bring anything new to the table for discussing these dynamics, which is a shame because there are hints that it understands how such subject matter may be even more relevant than it has been in years.
While you feel much of the 122-minute runtime, there are still great aspects of Wilde’s film that make it hard to summarily dismiss. Pugh, Pine, Nick Kroll, Timothy Simon and Wilde (in a supporting role) all deliver strong performances that make for compelling characters, even if they are written into clichéd scenarios and stock roles. As Alice, Pugh instills a great complexity into her protagonist, who yearns for the simplicity of her basic ‘50s world but is unable to look away from all the signs revealing it’s a flimsy façade. While the other performers don’t fare as well in the film, or at least are so limited in the writing that they aren’t given much room to shine, Pugh commands as the center of the movie with a supremely engaging performance.
The film’s biggest strong suit, though, is its visuals. Wilde, working with DP Matthew Libatique and production designer Katie Byron, has created some stunning imagery, beginning with the pastiche of the Atomic Age, with its Formica counters, massive cars and sharp suits. The period accoutrements may not be wholly accurate, but they perfectly capture the images that are conjured up by advertising of that time. Terrific splashes of colors radiate between the unnatural hues of the decade and those muted pastels that promoted a sense of suburban bliss. It’s a tremendous color palette that is far more interesting and arresting than anything in the script. The other area in which strong visuals come into play is the various fantasy/nightmare sequences that haunt Alice throughout the movie. Corrupting scenes of perfect home life and motifs from ‘30s musicals, Wilde finds ways to inject a real sense of madness and dread as Alice spirals further from the life she knew.
Unfortunately, all these high points are squandered because the audience is ahead of the movie most of the time. We know that all is not as it seems. Even assuming you didn’t see any advertisements for the film, viewers instinctively know that something is off due to all the hushed discussions and vague responses. “Don’t Worry Darling” takes forever to get to some sort of a reveal, which means that we must wait for the plot to catch up to the viewer in what they already know. There’s a way of using this tension to build suspense, as audiences hope that Alice can discover the truth and free herself, but Wilde’s film doesn’t use that approach, as it withholds information from viewers, ultimately delivering everything in a short burst of expository flashbacks that is overcomplicated and only serves to invite further questioning of the practical aspects of this scenario.
“Don’t Worry Darling” checks off so many boxes that a good film has in its tremendous use of imagery, excellent score by John Powell and strong performances from most of the cast. Unfortunately, none of these factors ever congeal into a worthwhile movie that feels revelatory or engaging in any particularly novel way. It aims to bite at the patriarchal hand that keeps so many down but ends up being a toothless critique that doesn’t plumb any new depths or do anything innovative. “Don’t Worry Darling” will probably end up working best in bite-sized chunks as part of some mash-up or video essay, but as a whole, it lacks true soul to make any sort of long-lasting impact.
Starring: Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine, Gemma Chan, Nick Kroll
Director: Olivia Wilde