On Olivia Wilde’s Much Talked-About Debut, Don’t Worry Darling ‹ Literary Hub

I was once told by a friend that the most gutting feedback anyone can receive about a project they’ve created is the phrase “there’s lots of great stuff in here”—the implication being that, for whatever reason, the project on the whole does not work even despite the genuine, creative kernels it might contain. Personally I find that phrase to be a bit more of a compliment (or less of a dig) than others might; I would much rather spend my time with a project containing “lots of great stuff” insufficiently framed and handled, than something uninspired or wholly derivative.

Much of the trouble with Don’t Worry Darling, directed by Olivia Wilde from a script by Katie Silberman, is that it is full of interesting, creative ideas, but those ideas can’t help but feel derivative. Don’t Worry Darling is about a 1950s-suburbian paradise in the middle of a desert, where every morning, happy, well-coifed wives cook lavish breakfasts for their husbands before gathering on their front lawns and waving goodbye as the men pile into automobiles and drive to work in the desert.

All the men all work for a mysterious outfit called The Victory Project, which is presided over by a charismatic leader named Frank (Chris Pine) and his prim and elegant wife Shelley (Gemma Chan). As the wives spend their mornings scrubbing and vacuuming in attractive dresses and full makeup, they listen to radio broadcasts curated and narrated by Frank and attend dance classes taught by Shelley.

It is homogeneity at its most luxurious. These housewives go shopping at a fancy department store, gossip by the community pool, drink a lot of pretty cocktails, and cook elaborate dinners to prepare for the return of their husbands in the evening. Even before our protagonist Alice (Florence Pugh) begins to suspect something is off in this midcentury-modern dollhouse utopia, the film is obvious about it. And how can it not be? This location seems to be the anti-feminist neighborhood from The Stepford Wives meets the cloistered 50s world of Pleasantville meets the pastel fascism of the town from Edward Scissorhands.

There is no way that there isn’t something sinister going on in this regimented, planned community, where the wives are forbidden from trekking into the desert themselves and not a single woman has a job of any kind. And when the film opens on numerous couples laughing at a cocktail party in one of their homes, to introduce the happy stasis that will eventually get interrupted by our heroine’s curiosity, it is not convincing as such.

The film attempts to assure us that Alice and her husband Jack (Harry Stiles) live a blissful life together—swearing to us that Alice is initially very fulfilled by showing us several sex scenes, all of which involve Alice receiving pleasure rather than giving it. But it doesn’t matter. Knowing what we know about this era in American history and also knowing what we know about movies set in this kind of domestic-heaven world, it seems impossible for the audience to buy that the film’s aesthetic of “50s appliance advertisements come to life” is A-OK for everybody, on every level.

Who doesn’t enjoy fastidious, detailed-oriented direction?

A ways in, we are introduced to Margaret (Kiki Layne), Alice’s once-friend who suffered a breakdown and now haunts their neighborhood, appearing in a long white nightgown, staring into the distance like a woman in distress in a Gothic novel. She, who once walked into the desert herself, insists that she has seen the true work of the Victory Project, and mutters cryptic things about it. But no one believes her, not even Alice, until Alice walks into the desert herself and sees something she can’t remember afterwards.

(Sidenote: is it just me, or is it a callous touch that the film’s only Black woman is represented as having failed to do the thing that our white woman protagonist gets a whole movie about trying to do? It seems weird, in a story that is basically about “not believing women,” to make Kiki Layne the first pancake of resistance. Or maybe it’s meta-acknowledging that a Black woman and a white woman could have the same experience and make the same complaint but only the white woman is given a morsel of credence enough to be given a story about it? My gut tells me it’s not the last one, because I don’t think the film is that ambitious or deep, but I don’t know.)

Watching Alice slowly figure out (which she does for the film’s first two-thirds) that Frank’s Carousel of Progress-style-planned community isn’t what it seems, will grow rather uninteresting and redundant, and this is very unfortunate because the film shows her illumination through very creative formal touches; she hallucinates lots of jarring things about her household tools and structures (which seem to attack her, or compel her to attack herself), and most commonly pictures a black-and-white Busby-Berkley synchronized dance sequence with clownishly-happy women that deteriorates into a barrage of horrifying faces and poses. This is all very interesting, but after an hour of Alice’s suspicions, the constant replaying of her trauma grows wearisome, and feels too controlled and contained for a development that is supposed to be challenging control and containment!

Then again, we as an audience might quickly feel trapped, forced to endure all this meaningless repetition, to the point that we might be forced to emotionally identify with Alice’s plight. If that’s the goal, it’s effective and impressive. But still, the movie holds itself in slow composure for much longer than it needs for its ultimate eruption to feel profoundly disruptive.

Florence Pugh is a compelling, believable actress, and watching her come to grips with the creepiness of her environment—and face off with Frank, a charismatic cult-leader-in-polo-sweaters if there ever were one—is one of the best parts of the movie. I felt genuine pain watching her desperately try to tell her husband what she suspects, and watching him dismiss or simply refuse to believe her. The film is full of “not believing” women, to the point where it becomes genuinely upsetting to behold. A doctor pushes a sedation prescription at her, her wisecracking best friend Bunny (Olivia Wilde, herself) refuses to take her seriously. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

The film finds a strange kind of catharsis when it reveals its big twist at the end of the second act, and begins to tie up a lot of the film’s loose ends in a neat and thematically resonant bow. The film’s third act moves by too quickly and its thematic crescendo is delivered a little heavy-handedly (with some makeup decisions that are going to live forever in meme-dom), but I found myself liking the point that the film is trying to make. Its thesis, overall, is about men needing to feel like they are Men, which might not feel so vanguard until the film is clear about the nuance on which it is dwelling, which is that these men need to feel like Men through their abilities to provide their wives pleasure and security. But mostly pleasure. Which is… interesting, and the first welcome departure from the anti-feminist cultures represented in the eerie films Don’t Worry Darling pastiches.

Olivia Wilde is a skillful director, and many of her stylistic choices are right on the money. The film has punchy, memorable visuals, but more importantly, it has a clean vividness: a bold and dazzling color palette and gorgeous lighting. There are a lot of close-ups, and this, too, is intriguing. The community also overly emphasizes synchronicity and symmetry, and the film’s dance scenes are so perfectly choreographed and filmed that you might wonder for a moment if they were animated. Who doesn’t enjoy fastidious, detailed-oriented direction? I, personally, am looking forward to how Wilde will explore these skills in another project. I also love a chance to notice a film’s sound-mixing and foley art. If you’re into that, Don’t Worry Darling might actually be a sonic gift for you.

I wondered, while watching the movie, if any of it will stay with me. So far, I find myself thinking about one throwaway line more than anything else. “Appetizers are where I express myself,” one of the housewives, Peg (a droll Kate Berlant), tells another friend, during a dinner party. This is a funny moment, but it is also sad, because it serves as a background reminder of how none of these women have vocations aside from cleaning and cooking and preparing a home. The 50s aesthetic also, by its nature, insists on “the perfect.” It involves a fetishization of visual order and balance, through the placing of objects in space. It’s supposed to be sad that designing platters of hors d’oeuvres is the only way Peg can express her creativity or personality. It is clear that she is trapped.

But it’s also an odd moment in a film that is itself so meticulously designed and constructed and choreographed. Does the film criticize an obsession with “the flawless” while it practices it itself, on a level of craft? I don’t know. Sometimes its own interests undermine its narrative, and vice versa. It’s stuff like this that makes the film get messy. It’s just not messy in particularly useful ways.

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