The Chaos and Control of Don’t Worry Darling
Don’t Worry Darling is ultimately a sophomore directorial debut with a lot to say and sometimes, a lack of footing on how to do so. Ultimately, I do not believe the critiques I hold for this film keep it from being an enjoyable and beautiful film to immerse yourself in.
Note: In an effort to abide by the #DontSpoilItDarling requests, I have provided a spoiler-free base review above a cut line, with further discussion below.
Don’t Worry Darling has done nothing but hold our attention from the moment it was first announced with a bidding war from studios desperate to be the home of Olivia Wilde’s second film and first introduction into the world of psychological erotic thrillers. With new film darling Florence Pugh set to star and singer Harry Styles later signing on to replace Shia LaBeouf, a watchful eye was kept on the entire production, one of the bigger projects to return to filming after COVID-19 shut Hollywood down. When it reached its premiere in Venice, rumors of behind-the-scenes drama were swarming around the film and creating a series of viral moments online. However, I found myself loving the film that came out on the other side and finding the piece itself much, much more interesting to discuss.
Set in the idyllic town of Victory in an undisclosed desert of America, Don’t Worry Darling presents a scathing warning of a patriarchal viewpoint and the stripping of female autonomy. The technical aspects of this work were clearly crafted by sure and steady hands. Matthew Libatique, Don’t Worry Darling’s cinematographer created and recreated worlds before our eyes. Don’t Worry Darling’s score is a guide for the audience, surging into the underbelly of Victory.
I am sure it would be very unsurprising to most to hear that Florence Pugh devoured the lead role of Alice Chambers. Her turmoil was unmistakable, as well as her love and joy. The collection of women in this film was truly a talent that could not be contained. I found myself wanting more and more from them. Gemma Chan had perhaps the smallest presence but when she was on screen, she commanded the room. Kiki Layne truly shone as Margaret. Kate Berlant was the perfect comic relief. As for the men, Chris Pine was a formidable leader, both mystifying and inviting all at once. As for Harry Styles, he was assured and able to hold his own against the weight of the rest of the cast. While there was a shot or two that likely could have been redone for better delivery, he settled into Jack with ease and ultimately acted the hell out of the third act. If possible, watch this film in a more quiet theater outside of the rushes of fans who will be there first. You do yourself a disservice to be hyper-aware that it is Harry Styles on a big screen rather than embracing Jack himself or distracting yourself from the rest of the ensemble.
As another word of warning, try to avoid spoilers. Some were unavoidable for me, having spent too much time online beforehand, and as such, I found myself disappointed at times with what I already knew and wishing I could only wipe my memory clean before entering. I have now seen this film twice, at screenings before the official release. The second watch was absolutely necessary for me to begin to understand certain plot points as well as to appreciate some of the choices that were made in the overall direction. All things said, this movie is a force and while it is not necessarily genius or imperfect, it is a conversation starter.
When I left the theater, this film stayed with me. My friend and I shared initial excitement at everything we had just seen and parted ways. As I drove the dark highways home, I had a feeling of being outside of myself. This feeling is familiar, it happens only when I have seen or read a thriller that has completely immersed me in its world and shaken my core around. I felt it after Black Swan and its arguable predecessor Perfect Blue, and after reading Sharp Objects. I feel unreal, inhuman, and with an urge to move my body as my mind races. I am equal parts horror and amazement. I am different.
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The plot of this film follows Alice and Jack, a young and eager couple, as they manage their lives in Victory, a picturesque town run by the formidable Frank and his wife Shelley. Alice’s friends Bunny, Peg, and Margaret along with the other wives in town stay home to cook and clean for their men and their children if they have them. They relax at the pool, shop, and ride the trolley across town most days. They live in relative comfort with homes, food, and clothes all provided by the enigmatic Victory Project, where all of the men work. Margaret has troubles that develop rapidly as she questions the nature of their work and the town itself. After letting slip cryptic phrases of warning at a party and an unseen incident where she leaves her son in the desert, she is labeled insane and shunned from the community, until she eventually takes her own life in front of Alice. Alice’s own turmoil is spurred on by this and she begins to have visions no one else sees and feels a sense of anxiety around her town. She investigates Margaret’s warnings after being told that Margaret did not kill herself but had to leave abruptly to seek treatment. While Jack and Bunny both attempt to dissuade Alice from her fears, she pushes back and confronts Frank, who privately tells her he appreciates the challenge and publicly admonishes her for delusions and ungratefulness. Jack cannot take anymore and has her taken away by Victory workers who bring her to a hospital for electroshock therapy. In the great twist, it is revealed that Alice was once a doctor and Jack her unemployed boyfriend who fell down the alt-right pipeline in his distress. The two become disconnected and break up, though Jack finds out about the Victory Project, a simulated world in which men can revert themselves and a chosen wife to a 1950’s idyllic town where women are happily subservient and men feel powerful. He kidnaps Alice and sends her to Victory, where her memories are replaced with faux visions of classic romance and a sense of duty to her husband.
Don’t Worry Darling creates a rhythmic world that slips in subtle tones, that begs you to look closer. Victory appears to be set in the 1950s, but it is not quite right is it? Some of the music being played on screen didn’t come out until the mid-1960s. One woman at the pool casually walks around topless, with only a singular embarrassed comment from another woman in reaction. There is no segregation, no mention of presidents or governors, no talk of war except for perhaps a mention that the secrets of Victory may be in weapons-building. Victory is a manicured, picturesque green in the middle of the desert. Jack, resident Brit, does not know the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’ These quirks are quiet but they build and build throughout the film along with the nerves until the great burst of a revelation at the end where everything falls down, and miraculously into place. Wilde has been playing an elaborate game of Jenga with us the whole time.
The film’s flaws lie mainly in the story itself. The concept is deeply relevant and engaging, but to bring a concept to cinema needs a steady hand and a sharp knife. Notable issues for me lie in some basic actions that make little sense. There is a certain amount of confusion to be accepted and expected in psychological thrillers, particularly with science fiction elements. However, in order to better swallow more outlandish ideas, the film must have a strong realistic foundation to build off of. Certain moments, such as when Alice decides the best course of action when she sees a plane crash an apparent three-plus miles away is to hike there on her own in ballet flats and her ‘Dior’s New Look’-esque dress to help, left my viewing guest and I exchanging looks of disbelief. This is coupled with there not being a real beginning to the plot, but rather the somewhat arbitrary introduction of two new neighbors who end up holding very little significance, while our main characters have been part of this world already for an indeterminate amount of time with their relationships already established. While this non-exposition sets the pacing for the first half of the viewing off-kilter for an audience member, it also does invoke the same disorienting sense of time that the wives hold, as their memory has been wiped and replaced. The script for Don’t Worry Darling was adapted from a 2019 speculative script by Katie Silberman and has been arguably the main cause of critique for the film. There is a lot to gain from the final version, but the film would have been best served with more time in preproduction.
One of the more necessary corrections to the script resides in Kiki Layne’s Margaret. Margaret is the emotional driver for the first half of the movie. She is the catalyst for Alice to question the motives of the men who guide her life. She has woken up first, though we don’t get the chance to find out exactly how much she knows. While she is the first woman to wake, while she is vilified by the other women for questioning the men, while she comes to her friend Alice for help and is ignored, it is Alice that will go toe to toe with Frank and end the simulation. Margaret is the first woman to speak and as is all too common, she is then thrown under the bus by other women more interested in upholding the comforts of patriarchy than creating a disruption.
Here the film seems to, unintentionally, become symbolic of the white feminism that props up a white woman as the solution to a problem a black woman first identified, fought against, and died for. The role of Margaret initially belonged to Dakota Johnson, who would then drop out to film Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, one of several casting changes made in pre-production. Layne stepped in to fill the role, becoming the only black principal cast member in the production. While Hollywood has increasingly begun colorblind casting for movie roles with the intention of more actors of color getting their big breaks, that casting in some roles needs to be accompanied by nuance to the script. Patriarchy and incel culture, where the film draws its main horrors, is tied up tightly with white supremacy. Perhaps Silberman and Wilde did not feel comfortable creating a film that challenges racial dynamics, perhaps they did not think of it. The end result, however, is a movie that ignores racism, and therefore ignores the truth. If there is one thing cinema should not be, it is too timid to speak the truth.
For a film like Don’t Worry Darling, the viewing experience will be different based on gender and experience with misogyny. When Frank confronts Alice in the kitchen, calling her “a good girl” - one of the more obvious chauvinistic displays, the whole audience gasps. A slow discomfort has started aching in my stomach a good minute before this moment, as I am sure it did for many, as Frank first paces over to Alice and stands tall directly behind her, practically breathing on her neck, a move common from men to display a sense of dominance over a woman. Don’t Worry Darling understands the experience of a woman. On the second watch, I started picking up on even more red flags. Jack Chambers was a happy and loving husband - until his wife showed any emotion or desire that countered his own. In Frank’s bedroom, though she laughs and concedes, he continues trying to have sex with her after she says no, that there are too many people around. While presented as playful at the time, there is the initial idea that he doesn’t truly view her as a person capable of making her own decisions, or decisions that he will treat as valid.
This is exactly why Harry Styles makes the perfect casting for this role. Going into the film, he is already known for being charming and kind, beloved by so many women. His presence as the handsome endearing new husband was an easy sell - making the switch that much more upsetting. The second time I watched Don’t Worry Darling, the theater was filled with fans, many of which were screaming before the film started as pictures of Styles lit up the big screen along with the rest of the cast. Two hours later, the fantasy he represented was turned on its head and a horror that while shocking, was not altogether unfamiliar for many women, settled in.
While the antagonists were the men in the film and a well-done - though at times heavy-handed - observation of patriarchy, what I found profoundly more interesting was the complexity and complicity of the women. All of the women who ignored Margaret’s cries for help instead push her out of the normative community; Shelley, who seems not to know the truth but will shut Alice down with patriarchal ideals of not allowing women to be anything but grateful and passive; and most of all Bunny, who knew of the violence being committed against women in the real world to get them here and of the mental anguish they are put through when trapped in the simulation. They are willing to protect the men, to toe the line of the patriarchs. Bunny makes this choice because of her own pain, and her loss of her real children, but she ends up giving in to the point of seeming to view herself as one of the boys. As Dita Von Teese’s burlesque is offered as a present to Frank, many of the women seem uncomfortable. Bunny, however, is smirking and exhaling her smoke along with the rest of the men. She has found comfort in this version of society and she holds onto it as long as she can, until Alice begins breaking the world and she moves to help her instead. This intimate understanding of women is a feeling I so rarely garner when I watch thrillers - my favorite genre. Wilde is careful with how she treats her women. Alice and Bunny in particular are multi-faceted and morally complicated. Even when they act in the name of patriarchy, characters like Shelley are a force. And most notably and shocking in some ways to me, while the movie is about the systematic dehumanization of women, there are very few displays of violence against women shown on screen, none of which are direct. Outside of the simulation, you can see Alice’s body being dragged down the hall and you can see deep bruises on her wrist from the straps she is in. Within the simulation, Margaret slits her own throat, and there are visions of her trapped behind a mirror, slamming her head to get out, whereas Alice has episodes of being smothered by her environment - all of which are spurred on by the anguish she and Margaret share. To be able to confront a world like this head-on, without losing sight of the very real women who will be in the audience, as well as the men, takes a poised vision and a respect for the impact of film.
I believe Don’t Worry Darling to ultimately be a sophomore directorial debut with a lot to say and sometimes, a lack of footing on how to do so. Ultimately, I do not believe the critiques I hold for this film keep it from being an enjoyable and beautiful film to immerse yourself in. To the contrary, I find the goal of cinema as a study and art is to create conversation and Don’t Worry Darling has absolutely done that. This is a film to be engaged with, to be challenged and defended. With two viewings under my belt so far, I know that I will watch this film again and I am certain I will leave each time with new thoughts and emotions. I encourage viewers to go find for yourselves what you leave with.