THE STORY – In the 1950s, Alice and Jack live in the idealized community of Victory, an experimental company town that houses the men who work on a top-secret project. While the husbands toil away, the wives get to enjoy the beauty, luxury and debauchery of their seemingly perfect paradise. However, when cracks in her idyllic life begin to appear, exposing flashes of something sinister lurking below the surface, Alice can’t help but question exactly what she’s doing in Victory.
THE CAST – Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll & Chris Pine
THE TEAM – Olivia Wilde (Director) & Katie Silberman (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 122 Minutes
If you’ve been on the internet at any point these past few weeks, you’ve more than likely been bombarded with news articles, opinions, and, of course, memes about the alleged drama behind the scenes on Olivia Wilde’s second feature film “Don’t Worry Darling.” We won’t recap it here – trust us, there’s plenty available online – but it’s safe to say there’s been more chatter about Wilde and star Florence Pugh’s relationship, whether Harry Styles spit on costar Chris Pine, and the Shia LaBeouf being fired or quitting drama than the actual film itself. And it’s a shame as Wilde gives us quite the colorful, picturesque, mid-century modern vibe with a whole lot of deep-rooted evil in her latest project.
Vastly different from her feature directorial debut “Booksmart,” centered on two goodie two-shoe high school seniors who decide to let loose before graduation, “Don’t Worry Darling” brings us back to a time when women were solely expected to keep their homes clean, raise children, cook dinner for their husbands, and, most upsetting, keep their heads down. To many, this was, and might still be viewed, as the way life should be; with men in charge of every aspect of life and women forfeiting any desire for more, whether that be the pursuit of higher education, a career, or the freedom to be and do whatever. But what if there is more to life than what the women in “Don’t Worry Darling” are told? Pugh’s Alice finds herself searching for an answer as her utopia slowly unravels until it leads to an ending that, though not the most original or developed, won’t be what you expect.
We drop into this world in the middle of a 1950s cocktail party where everyone’s slap-happy and has had too much to drink. At the center of it are Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Styles), a young couple who only have eyes for each other. That’s not hard to do when you pair the world’s “It” boy with an Oscar nominee who steals the show in every film (or video where she giggles with an Aperol Spritz in hand). Pugh and Styles play well off each other — though she shines brighter every time — and have chemistry, especially when things get pretty steamy. Alice barely has time to put a roast out for dinner before she finds herself lying on the dining room table, pushing dishes off to the side, as Jack goes down on her.
The two lovebirds live in the desert town of Victory, a picturesque setting with a stunning mountain landscape, chic mid-century modern homes, and pleasant residents, with Wilde’s chain-smoking Bunny as one of the highlights. Filmed in Palm Springs, renowned for its 1950s and 1960s architecture, it provides the perfect backdrop. Production designer Katie Byron immerses you even more in this world with stunning sets that have all the retro gadgets, while costume designer Arianne Phillips’ exquisite designs make you long for a closet full of those outfits.
Victory was created by Frank (Pine), and all the men work at the Victory Project. But what exactly they do is a mystery for the women, aside from it dealing with the “development of progressive materials.” As the men drive off in their colorful convertibles each morning, the women shop, gossip, attend a creepy ballet class, clean and cook all day long until their husbands return home (it gives off big “The Stepford Wives” vibes). Cinematographer Matthew Libatique captures all the activities with such rich colors and crisp visuals that immerse you even deeper into the mystique. All that’s asked of the women is that they don’t go to the headquarters or ask many questions. When your life seems so great, why would you?
But things start to feel very strange. During a mixer at Frank’s home, Margaret (KiKi Layne), the only Black woman in Victory, distraughtly asks, “Why are we here?” Everyone brushes it off and labels her as the town crazy, but Alice soon believes she might be onto something. Sure enough, there’s a tune stuck in her head, but she doesn’t know where it’s from. On second thought, there is a lot she doesn’t remember from her life before Victory, nor do the other women. Hallucinations like elaborate Busby Berkeley productions soon haunt her, and when she goes to Victory headquarters, she discovers something she was never meant to see. Searching for answers, she soon receives the same treatment as Margaret: everyone essentially gatekeeps and gaslights her to no end.
Pugh is a marvel to watch on screen as her sense of comfort and reality slowly unravels, much like what audiences saw in “Midsommar.” As she goes toe-to-toe with Frank – Pine is also a delight to see with his sinister gaze – you easily feel Alice’s frustration. Even Jack starts acting like all of them, and she soon feels extremely isolated. It’s hard for an acting newcomer like Styles to match the level that Pugh and Pine bring to high-tension scenes, but he holds his own reasonably well.
It all leads up to a big reveal that, don’t worry, darling, won’t be spoiled here. The film’s trailers lay it out that there is a twist coming in the film, which dilutes the surprise factor. Nonetheless, it is still an effective twist that you likely won’t expect, although it admittedly is nothing new or original and has been overused throughout the years. But once the film introduces this truth, it fails to explore it, build on it or answer any questions arising from the reveal. Perhaps the most disappointing element of the film is that it touches on several relevant themes, such as control, male dominance, and a woman’s place in the world, but it fails to dig deep into those topics. The final few minutes are high-paced and intense, thanks to Pugh’s committed performance and gripping editing, but it is unfortunately just another moment leaving us wanting more. An additional 15 or 20 minutes would have done wonders.
Even though it doesn’t all come together in the end, Wilde does a hell of a job directing this stylish flick. She deserves a lot of credit for taking big swings in her second feature rather than sticking to a more by-the-numbers story, and it’ll be exciting to see what she delivers in future projects. Let’s just hope more of the drama stays on the screen next time.