Synopsis – A 1950’s housewife living with her husband in a utopian experimental community begins to worry that his glamorous company may be hiding disturbing secrets.
My Take – With her directorial debut Booksmart (2019) turning out to be an excellent, sharp and satisfying venture, actress Olivia Wilde, known for her roles in films like Tron: Legacy (2010) and Cowboys & Aliens (2011), immediately turned into a promising filmmaker to look out for.
Hence, at first glance, Wilde’s follow-up film immediately looked bigger, bolder and more ambitious than her debut, along with a plenty of style to spare. Plus with a cast that included the likes of Harry Styles, Florence Pugh and Chris Pine, there has been a sense of morbid anticipation around the psychological thriller, despite the film generating a large amounts of negative buzz in the run-up to its release.
And while the resulting film is nowhere near as bad as I expected it to be given the firestorm of behind-the-scenes drama and production troubles, it is also not as interesting or as well-put-together as it ought to be given it’s thrilling plot.
Making it truly a case of style over substance. While the film is nonetheless an engaging ride because of its vibrant visuals, and grounded performances, it feels a bit lacking throughout its the entire run time as the screenplay doesn’t unfold as well as it should have. This one of those films that’s bursting with imaginative, intriguing ideas, but never quite finds a way to put them together in a satisfying, coherent way. Messy and not particularly satisfying as a result.
Set during the 1950s, the story follows Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh), who lives with her husband Jack (Harry Styles) in the pleasant, picturesque town of Victory. Their decadent lifestyle is paid for by the mysterious Victory Project, that is owned and run by its charismatic founder, Frank (Chris Pine) who employs all the local men, who go to work at Victory Headquarters out in the surrounding desert, while the wives stay home to clean, relax, and prepare dinner for their husbands.
The women are discouraged from asking questions about their husbands’ work, and are told not to venture out to Headquarters due to the dangerous materials the company works with.
While Alice spends most of her day finishing her chores and spending time with her neighbor/best friend Bunny (Olivia Wilde), Alice’s serenity and routine is soon disrupted after she witnesses a plane crash. With her mind unraveling, she begins to sense something sinister about the town, the company, and her own place within its borders.
With its screenplay (written by Katie Silberman) inspired by Brave New World and Stepford Wives, director Wilde throws in spectacular visual flourishes, and nightmare sequences in which Alice suspects she really is losing her mind as her peers would have her believe.
Without a doubt, the entire production is gorgeous, meticulous and perfectly styled, enveloping viewers into a brilliantly suffocating atmosphere of 50s utopia. The 1950s in film is often painted with a heavy and distracting gauze of irony; the overbearing aesthetics of the period usually feel purposefully synthetic, like they’ve been lifted straight from a brochure.
Thankfully, director Wilde sidesteps these clichés. The film keeps a unique balance, presenting a town which feels lived in and practical. The desert sun sears residents, the fine china feels personal and authentic, and the homes look genuinely inviting. Where most film landscapes of the 50s never feel like more than a facade, Victory looks like an enjoyable, livable place.
But beneath its very polished outer sheen, though, the film is quite hollow. As Alice becomes more and more unnerved by her surroundings, the script calls on her to become more confrontational, the film holds this unease pose for too long.
The problem is that director Wilde leans too heavily on surface and style, as a distraction from the fact that the story itself is riddled with inconsistencies and barely holds together. There’s an effort to make the answer to the mystery feel timely and relevant and even daring. But that answer is a perfectly passable, if not terribly interesting, solution to the baffling situation Alice has been in. The problem is that the answer to the mystery’s central question doesn’t fit terribly well with the particular pieces of evidence it needs to explain.
The film offers criticisms of how a society views a woman’s role in the world, bodily autonomy, and how males fight to maintain systemic power structures and control, albeit it doesn’t really convey anything new to the audience. The film attempts to be unpleasant, and it succeeds, in large part because of Pugh‘s portrayal of a confused Alice.
The performances, particularly by Florence Pugh and Chris Pine, are honestly great. Pugh is phenomenal, throwing everything she has into her role and carrying large chunks of the film more or less single-handedly, while Pine whose suave and dangerous performance deserves to be in a much better film than this. Harry Styles is alright in his role, however his inexperience shows, as he is unable to deliver the complexity that his role requires. He’s glassily superficial, giving a performance entirely untroubled by a hint of an interior life.
In supporting roles, Olivia Wilde and Kiki Layne are compelling and interesting, while in small roles, Gemma Chan, Nick Kroll, Sydney Chandler, Kate Berlant, Timothy Simons, Ari’el Stachel, Asif Ali, Douglas Smith and Dita Von Teese are effective. On the whole, ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ is a messy yet mildly compelling thriller that prefers style over substance.
Directed – Olivia Wilde
Rated – R
Run Time – 122 minutes