If you had asked me if I was excited about Don’t Worry Darling a few months ago, I would say it was one of my most anticipated films. As a director, Olivia Wilde made a massive impression on us with her directorial debut, 2019’s Booksmart, one of my favorite comedies that year and a complete surprise for coming-of-age teen movies. Now, the hesitation left me worrying if you were to ask me about her second feature film after the second trailer dropped. The drama surrounding this seemed to draw more attention than the actual film, from Shia LaBeouf “leaving” the project, to on-set conflicts between Wilde and lead Florence Pugh. Sometimes it’s never a good sign there’s tension looming before its release. However, despite behind-the-scenes gossip and the mixed reviews it’s been getting, that didn’t stop me from hopefully getting a terrific, unpredictable thriller on our hands that spins on the genre with top-notch results.
Alice Chambers (Pugh) and her loving husband Jack (Harry Styles) are a young couple seemingly living the perfect life in the small, isolated desert town of Victory in 1950s California. They’re a part of a community with other happily married couples in their beautiful houses and fancy cars, as the wives stay home to prepare their meals, clean, and gossip while out drinking. But, at the same time, all the husbands work daily for their mysterious founder Frank (Chris Pine), on this so-called secret Victory Project that could change the world. However, Alice soon discovers what might happen behind closed doors in this picture-perfect environment and starts questioning everything around her, from weird visions to those close.
Just the cast involved, along with being compared to the respective vibes of The Stepford Wives, The Truman Show, and Black Swan captured my attention. I don’t want to say, could we be looking at one of the best films launching us into this season? Of course, some will, but I thought Don’t Worry Darling takes the spot, so far, as the year’s biggest disappointment that I desperately wanted to love.
What do I think saved this from being a massive misfire? Florence Pugh’s performance as Alice keeps this alive when she’s on screen, carrying the film on her shoulders. Pugh is another actress in her mid-20s that can’t do any wrong with a memorable role, but it’s upsetting she’s in a mediocre film like this. But we’re like Alice, as she’s concerned and paranoid about what’s going on, and she makes her the most likable character that wants us to uncover this potential dark truth about this utopia and being the subject of gaslighting. I also hope I’m not the only one noticing the similarity to her character in Midsommar. Another performance worth noting is Chris Pine. He wasn’t in it as much as I wanted (and who wouldn’t want more of him), but he works as the cult-like leader and it was probably the first time I couldn’t see him as charming (in a good way). As for everybody else, you really don’t get to know them, feeling as if they wasted their talents. It’s an ensemble worth mentioning, but you want more from Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll, or Wilde herself that were mere afterthoughts when it’s over.
For me, the script by Katie Silberman (with a story co-written by Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke) falls short of finding life. I felt the same way when Alice notices things seem off. When it wants to pique your interest, it goes about as hollow as possible when centered on the central mystery and its exciting ideas. That build-up to the tension meanders so much of scenes that might have some relevance later on, but do they? I got pretty bored after a pleasant enough setup at the beginning, quite the opposite of the fast pace energy I craved with her last film. The mystery angle in this universe also came across as vague and just needed to offer what type of secret and the rest of the movie went nowhere exciting. I desperately wanted this to get to the surprise. And I knew this would provide an underlying message in addressing typical gender roles of that time in a closed-off world or how we need to control our lives. Still, Wilde never pushed it hard enough to make a powerful statement or make it clever for audiences. At times, it was almost like she was trying too hard to capitalize on this being a stylish thriller in its creative visuals, where it would have us answering many questions.
And then there’s Harry Styles as our leading man. Honestly, it’s not new seeing talented artist try their hand at acting. The last time he appeared in a movie that wasn’t a cameo was in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t watch the leaked footage on social media because that’s out of context and I need to see him act with an open mind. Was it a laughable performance to consider? No. But honestly, Style’s performance appeared flat where he didn’t carry enough range with his character of Jack to make him believable from a dialogue standpoint. For that reason, the romantic chemistry between him and Pugh never appealed to be when we all knew she’ll act in circles around him. Most will disagree by saying he’s fine, but I think another actor would’ve made a better impression, not someone who’s completely miscast.
But if you’re looking for something beautiful to give the film another positive compliment, just feast your eyes on Matthew Libatique’s cinematography. So much is captured in the production design’s unique style of the town that makes the colors pop and you honestly can see yourself living in under different circumstances. I gave the nod of approval to some amazing shots, especially one near the climax.
The funniest thing to happen when I saw it was the power going out in my theater right when I thought something of interest was about to happen. The screen was blank for about nine minutes, but it still didn’t get any better after that. The entire third act was when everything started to fall apart, leaving me disappointed where I left feeling annoyed by the end, even when I suspect it’ll have an inevitable twist that I saw coming.
Don’t Worry Darling is a frustrating psychological thriller that’s not only a missed opportunity but shouldn’t have been a sophomore slump for Wilde as a director. Florence Pugh’s great and the cinematography’s beautiful. Unfortunately, the script adds slight intrigue to the premise. But as much as I didn’t think this was entertaining, I won’t write off Wilde as a director since I believe she can be a competent director with the right story to execute flawlessly.
Don’t Worry Darling is now playing in the theaters. Runtime: 123 Minutes. Rated R for sexuality, violent content and language. Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures/ New Line Cinema.