You’ve surely heard about Don’t Worry Darling, filmmaker Olivia Wilde’s sophomore feature starring Florence Pugh and pop sensation Harry Styles. The fusillade of rift rumors, leaked messages, process servers, and that A-list showmance has generated nearly as many breathless headlines as the raid on Mar-a-Lago. Lost in the haze has been the film itself, which deserves to be judged on its own merits.
By all outward appearances, Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Styles) are a hot, young, loved-up couple. They live in an immaculately designed home in Victory, California, a 1950s-style desert-oasis community bursting with vibrant colors—courtesy of ace lensman Matthew Libatique—and palm tree-lined streets. While Jack spends all day at work as a technical engineer for the Victory Project, a hush-hush operation headquartered out in the desert that employs all the town’s men, Alice and the other housewives clean, shop, gab, sip cocktails, take ballet lessons, and always have a nice roast waiting for their men when they return—though, judging by the voracious oral Jack gives her atop their kitchen table, it’s not a roast he’s hungry for.
All the townsfolk are in thrall to Frank (Chris Pine), the handsome, well-coiffed and charismatic architect of the Victory Project who’s fostered a cult of personality. Frank lives in the biggest mansion, is possessed of the most graceful wife (Gemma Chan), has his photos displayed on walls, evangelizes all day on the radio, and, for the men of Victory, is beyond reproach. When he catches Alice and Jack going at it in his bedroom during a party, she locks eyes with him, moaning in ecstasy.
The only person who isn’t buying what Frank is selling (besides the audience) is Margaret (KiKi Layne), who lost her son after breaking the town’s big rule: venturing out into the desert. She begins publicly questioning the established order of Victory, alienating her from Alice, Bunny (Wilde), Peg (Kate Berlant), and their circle of friends—even though Alice, too, is haunted by visions of demon showgirls and flashing corneas. Those waking nightmares only intensify after she witnesses Margaret slit her throat in broad daylight before jumping off the roof of her home, prompting a cleanup crew of men in red uniforms to remove her body, restrain Alice, and sanitize the scene.
Premiering at the Venice Film Festival prior to hitting theaters on Sept. 23, Don’t Worry Darling is more than anything a showcase for Pugh who, as in her previous Midsommar, has mastered the art of embodying gaslit women who slowly unravel. She captures Alice’s torment and rebellion with gusto, as in a scene—arguably the best in the film—where she goes toe-to-toe with Pine at a dinner party. It is unfortunate, then, that Styles struggles to match her go-for-broke intensity. The musician is like a deer in headlights throughout much of the proceedings, and a scene of him crying in the car following a particularly fiery row with Pugh is littered with more crocodile tears than Charlie Sheen being hauled out of his office by the cops at the end of Wall Street (not to mention, his bastardized British accent is a distraction).
Though it is unfair that Styles, a late-in-the-game replacement for Shia LaBeouf, was paired with an actress as formidable as Pugh in his first leading role, a less demanding one (say, a musical) could have better eased him into things. “Music I’ve done a little longer so I’m a bit more comfortable,” admitted Styles at the film’s Venice press conference. “What I like about acting is I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing.”
As Alice, in Truman Show-like fashion, sprints toward the ugly truth, Don’t Worry Darling’s entire narrative collapses, exposing Katie Silberman’s script as a glaringly obvious one with precious little to say about the ever-growing tension between modern-day feminism and incel culture. It also reveals several early scenes, including that kitchen table cunnilingus, to be nothing more than empty misdirection.
Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart, about two nerdy high school senior gals who crave one last night of mayhem, was a lightning bolt of verve and vigor, and sparked a bidding war between 18 studios for her next project, with New Line Cinema emerging victorious. It’s one of two films that its embattled parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, has chosen to release for the rest of the year, pushing the remainder of their slate to 2023 and beyond as they balance their $50 billion debt load. And Wilde has three other massive projects already green-lit: a biopic of Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug for Searchlight, a studio comedy at Universal, and a Marvel superhero film set in the Spider-Man universe. She is undoubtedly talented, and one of the most in-demand directors in the biz for a reason. Let’s hope next time she works with better material that doesn’t constantly tip its hand, and avoids all the behind-the-scenes drama. I believe she is capable of so much more than this hollow Black Mirror knockoff.