When Olivia Wilde’s first film, Booksmart, dropped in 2019 I thought we’d found an exciting new voice in cinema. I still think that, and even though the issues surrounding the Don’t Worry Darling drama would have always been hard for the film to overcome I’ll continue to root for her. The film has a lot of things going for it, from the appearance of Harry Styles (my early screening was full of mostly One Direction fans) to the powerhouse combo of Pugh and Pine. It’s got cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, A Star is Born, Birds of Prey) and production designer Katie Byron (C’mon C’mon, Zola) teaming up to create a brilliant visual style that is evocative of everything from The Stepford Wives to the Fallout video games. It even has composer John Powell (Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Bourne Ultimatum, Hancock) delivering an absolutely wild score that I’ll be listening to for ages to come.
So it’s kind of a shame that the final product of all this is merely a watchable but forgettable film.
I don’t say this to dismiss the film outright, as the aforementioned highlights consume a good chunk of the film. Look, I’ll take Florence Pugh where I can get her because the woman never gives less than a fantastic performance. Chris Pine is wonderfully embracing his elder statesman era of his career, graying beautifully in the follicles and utilizing his Rip Van Winkle face to bring an air of gravitas to a role that could have been obnoxiously corny throughout. Every moment these two pop up onscreen the film receives a much-needed jolt of electricity, breathing life into the plot and pushing the momentum forward as much as they can. Pugh is absolutely magnetic onscreen, but she’s bogged down by a script that needs to be trimmed and streamlined.
That script tells the story of Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack Chambers (Harry Styles), a couple that lives in Victory, California. The town is sealed off and under the rule of Frank (Chris Pine), a charismatic cult leader-type that has founded what is only known as the “Victory Project” which smells of the secret cities used to house the scientists on the Manhattan Project. He speaks a lot of platitudes about finding our true selves, the importance of the work, and about building the future without fear. All of the men in town work at his headquarters, offsite in the desert, and every one of them leaves each morning to go about…well, the wives aren’t quite sure. Frank’s wife, Shelley (Gemma Chan), serves as the matriarchal figure of Victory and teaches rigid discipline in her ballet classes. The town seems to be made up of heterosexual, 1950s cliche couples. The women work at home, cooking and cleaning, and when the men arrive at the door they’re greeted with dinner, a cocktail, and some stellar sex. When the wives hang out together they spend most of their time drinking and gossiping about one another. Everyone is beautiful, the town is immaculate, and something is wrong. An incident leads Pugh into the desert where she sees…something. While she’s unclear on what exactly it was, she begins going down a rabbit hole to figure out exactly what’s going on with their existence and why she’s all of a sudden behaving so oddly.
Wilde and Libatique have shot the absolute hell out of Don’t Worry Darling, using their sunny setup to really make a meal of all the visual imagery. It’s contrasted with black and white hallucinations that Pugh experiences throughout, featuring dancers that eerily mirror the ballet routines the wives go to during the day (or the way they all wave goodbye to their men in perfect synch). Gorgeous cars, homes that were considered fashionable for the era, and an uncanny usage of era-appropriate costuming on performers that are all clearly Millenials work to build this unsettling and beautiful little town.
One of the many things that benefitted Booksmart was an episodic sensation that kept it light but allowed the director to play with different styles and tones throughout. It worked for that film, but she’s utilizing it in a different way for Don’t Worry Darling and I think it’s to the detriment of the film. One of Frank’s little Frank-isms is “Chaos is the enemy of progress.” It’s ironic that he says this as the chaotic nature of Booksmart was part of what made it such a whipsmart success. Don’t Worry Darling is about the oppression of order, how imposing it can cause the collapse of that order, and how chaos and unpredictability are desirable things in a world consisting of them. Wilde took that them and…imposed order on it, rigidly structuring her film as though it were itself the town of Victory and taking all of the subtlety and mystery from it. When Pugh sees a plane crash and heads into the desert to take a look we already feel like we know how that’s going to turn out, and being one step (or several) ahead of the characters in a film like this isn’t as much fun as the sensation of discovery.
Speaking of unfortunate characters…we need to have a talk about Harry Styles. I know a great many of you adore the man, boost One Direction, and are hyped for this film almost solely for his appearance. He’s not abysmal in the film, but you can tell that acting isn’t his game and when he’s onscreen with any other seasoned actor he feels like a dog sitting at the table while all the humans in the room coo, “Aw, he thinks he’s people.” It’s so unfortunate and he is the absolute weakest part of the film. An intervention needs to be staged to keep him off the screen and I can’t help but feel like Don’t Worry Darling would be improved significantly by merely casting a more competent actor in the role.
While I didn’t love Don’t Worry Darling I certainly didn’t hate it. Certain performances, the score, and a great deal of gorgeous imagery pick the film up and carry it across the finish line to a reveal that is absolutely insane in the best way. It feels unearned because of the narrative pitfalls inherent to the film’s script, but I won’t deny that the moment is an absolute showstopper and took me from wondering if I disliked the film to being ready to defend a great deal of it. Wilde’s got talent, and it’s a shame that so much of the drama behind this film will overshadow it. I don’t know if there’s enough here to overcome the cloud hanging over this film, but for my part, I hope it turns out to be a box office hit and studios just throw money at Olivia Wilde to make another insane project. She’s got the right eye for it, and with any luck, the best is yet to come.
Don’t Worry Darling is currently playing in theaters.