Don’t Worry Darling (2022)
Director: Olivia Wilde
Screenwriter: Katie Silberman
Starring: Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, Kiki Layne
Don’t Worry Darling was destined to be a hot topic before even a second of footage rolled at a showing. The press coverage of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans has been utter chaos, from Shia LaBeouf’s hiring and firing to protect cast members, to a clip that showed Harry Styles apparently spitting on his co-star Chris Pine, and further allegations of arguments about cast wages. All this would normally be as big of a draw as the film itself, with people flocking to see what all the fuss is about if nothing else. Let’s hope, for the sake of cinema, that this social media attention is what gets people in, because Don’t Worry Darling, which sees Florence Pugh’s Alice trying to discover what’s really going on in the seemingly utopian community she lives in with Jack (Styles) and her friends, is certainly not going to do it based on sheer cinematic merit.
Florence Pugh and Chris Pine are the standouts of Don’t Worry Darling, and when the two come together for several tense, well shot scenes, the film knows what it’s doing. The writing, direction, and their performances, in a pivotal scene at the ⅔ marker, gets the skin digging into the arm of the chair, and the hairs on the back of the neck standing to attention. It’s a shame we don’t get more of Chris Pine’s Frank – a man with a politician’s smile and the theatrical, manufactured energy of a Philip K Dick villain – because when he comes onto the screen the whole film gets better. Pugh also brings a suitable heroine to the borders of hysteria and paranoia with panache, but Frank is by far the most interesting aspect of the film.
These two keep the energy going, and director Olivia Wilde’s own performance as Alice’s friend Bunny has a casual, off-the-cuff ease, which helps one forget Harry Styles’ stilted, uninspired performance. Perhaps that was intentional, as one of the film’s key themes is an examination of the boredom of male-ruled suburban America (suitably decked out here in 1950s stylings that all the art team should be proud of), but it would have been better for the film if he didn’t reflect it so well. The most animated he gets is when his face is buried between Florence Pugh’s legs, which is great for steaminess but not so much for cinematic greatness.
This focus on Styles’ Jack, and unfortunate non-exploration of Pine’s Frank, begins to show the major weaknesses of the film. It is primarily focused on two aspects; the conspiratorial mystery element of what is really going on at the Victory project they all live in, and the rebellion of Alice against the patriarchal nuclear-family world she inhabits, and the expectations of womanhood to provide for the man, and to enable him to do his job. In examining the latter aspect, the film takes on an air of narcissistic self-importance which is completely undermined by the triviality and mundanity of both the exploration of the former and its eventual twist reveal.
The direction is uninspired, and the surreal moments meant to get our hearts pounding is stereotypically Hollywood rinse-and-repeat imagery-for-dummies. The film doesn’t know how to go about revealing this mystery, so it tiptoes around the problem for an excruciating hour plus. When it eventually does expose all, it doesn’t have the guts to bring about something monumentally groundbreaking. It falls back on tropes and ideas seen in a thousand films prior, from The Prisoner to Monstrous to Vivarium, with nothing new to offer.
Don’t Worry Darling looks good. Some of it is actually effectively crafted. But it has been executed by a mainstream Hollywood institution that pulls its punches when it should be going all out. It is a feminist, Hollywood interpretation of Vivarium, which is a shame because Vivarium is undoubtedly the superior film and will never get any of the notice this film did. Potential = squandered.