A literal war on women is far from over in America. Despite decades of progress, many of the most important freedoms provided to women were stripped away in the Dobbs Supreme Court decision. For the film industry, women continue to fight for big-budget, high concept movies. Rarely are they given the space to showcase their own creativity, unless they receive that freedom in costumes or a craft category. However, after the success of Booksmart, actress-turned-director Olivia Wilde received a call up to the big leagues. Working off an existing screenplay, but refreshing it for her own vision, Wilde assembled an all-star cast for Don’t Worry Darling. She even got Oscar-nominated wunderkind Florence Pugh to headline the project. Sadly, Don’t Worry Darling does not accomplish it’s lofty goals. Wilde’s first foray into big-budget filmmaking is certainly a misstep, but the bones of the house are good. Sadly, it just does not come together this time.
Alice (Pugh) finds herself struggling in the small town of Victory. She seemingly has the perfect husband, Jack (Harry Styles), who is not only successful at work but he’s attractive and loving. Yet something is off in the 1950s suburbia that borders the desert. While the men work under the mysterious Frank (Chris Pine), Alice begins questioning her perfect world.
Directed by Wilde (who also plays a side character in the story), the film features some admittedly stunning visuals. Bringing to life a town that feels like its in the neighborhood of Pleasantville, Stepford Wives, and Revolutionary Road is not an easy task. The visual dichotomy of utopia against the desert feels a bit simple, but its undeniably effective. Even the use of old-timey dancers and visuals to keep characters in a sense of calm helps to add visual flair (though one can argue that making these monochrome videos undermines the illusion the antagonists wish to create).
Pugh brings energy to the film that is sorely lacking from the story. While Wilde attempts to integrate interesting ideas into the movie, there’s also long stretches where very little happens. In fact, the vast majority of this talented cast feels like window dressing. Pugh keeps our attention with her performance, but the rest of the team simply cannot keep up with her ability. Additionally, characters played by Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, and Kate Berlant feel underutilized.
That is not to say that Pugh is delivering a good performance. She’s simply capable at displaying the frustration and fear of being isolated in one’s life. Nothing she brings to the screen is as interesting or insightful as her performances in Midsommar, Lady Macbeth or Little Women. Pugh often chooses roles that allow her to stretch her emotional vulnerability, but frankly, she often falls into one-note throughout Don’t Worry Darling. She’s able to run circles around her co-stars because she has the self-awareness for what the movie needs to succeed.
It is most obvious when Styles is asked to stretch himself. He’s not necessarily bad, but rather wildly miscast in the role. This is not the kind of alluring character he should be playing, and in the hands of a better story, he could showcase his electricity as a performer. Instead, you can feel him working through the steps, especially during a dance sequence, where Style seems to be trying to emote while making sure he’s counting the steps as part of the choreography. This is partially a let-down on Styles, but mostly a frustrating example the direction not putting him a position to succeed.
The actual craftwork of Don’t Worry Darling does offer some highlight work. The costumes from Arianne Phillips are undeniably gorgeous. Brining together the mid-century modern look in the production design also allows for sleek visuals. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique frames his shots well, allowing for some more texture and depth to seep into a very clean palette. Even if Wilde can get knocked for the narrative structure, she let her craftsmen go to work.
Much of the film focuses on the search for perfection and the lengths we’re willing to go to obtain it. There is also a rather obvious metaphor about the control men want over women. There’s no issue with this as the story, but Don’t Worry Darling seems to insist these ideas are new for the audience to discover. One of the biggest issues plaguing Don’t Worry Darling is that other films addressed these issues better this year. Rather than focus on a singular issue, Don’t Worry throws dozens of issues at the wall, all at once.
However Watcher from Chloe Okuno and Resurrection from Andrew Semans explored gaslighting more in-depth. Fresh showcased how men succeed when they have women allies willing to enable their crimes. Even Barbarian does more substantial work in exploring the dangerous underbelly of suburbia and sexual assault. Rather than dive into any of these singular ideas, Don’t Worry Darling hopes that you will accept its surface level exploration on these issues. What’s worse, is the final act collides these issues into a non-sensical creshendo. When your film becomes about everything, its actually about nothing. Without that focus, Don’t Worry Darling feels like a knockoff of better movies.