Last month, a sneak peek of Harry Styles and Florence Pugh acting opposite one another in Don’t Worry Darling dropped in promotion of the upcoming film. The clip circulated at full tilt and sparked a number of questions among viewers. Chiefly, “What exactly is Harry Styles doing?” Don’t Worry Darling marked the international pop icon’s first real chance to prove his acting chops, having only briefly appeared in a Marvel mid-credits scene last year and a near-silent spot in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk back in 2017. But this new clip wasn’t offering people on social media, even some of Styles’ most ardent followers, much confidence in the singer’s transition to film.
The clip showcased an impassioned argument between Jack (Styles) and his wife Alice (Pugh). As an isolated, heated moment, divorced from any context in the film, Styles’ performance is unmistakably wooden. Especially when up against a talent like Pugh, Styles’ abilities are visibly overshadowed, despite the former only speaking a handful of words. It’s apparent how empty Styles’ eyes are, how flat his tone of voice remains while desperately attempting to convey the danger that Alice is putting their lives in by questioning the motives of Jack’s workplace, the Victory Project. Many viewers couldn’t even pinpoint the accent that Styles appeared to be putting on, which seemed to oscillate bewilderingly between Styles’ native British, American and maybe even…Australian?
As 2022 shapes up to be Styles’ big Actor Man debut—his co-lead in the scandal-embroiled Darling is coupled with his role as a closeted English cop in My Policeman—he is reaping, one might call say, mixed responses. Overwhelmed by an endless stream of gossip and drama, Don’t Worry Darling, for one, seemed destined to critically nosedive. As the production was plagued by interpersonal problems between director Olivia Wilde and her two leads that ate up tabloid headlines for weeks, it became clearer as the Venice premiere came and went (and reviews trickled in) that it would be difficult to prevent the scandal from impeding the critical eye.
In the expectation that the on-set troubles would have blanketed the film’s quality, I believe that some have been harsher on the film than necessary. Don’t Worry Darling isn’t nearly as bad as some reviews indicate, nor what the Rotten Tomatoes score might signify to the average moviegoer who’s wondering if Don’t Worry Darling is worth one of the three weekly AMC A-list slots. But, uncoupled from scandal, it’s also not nearly interesting enough to incur such a relentless stream of discourse. It’s occasionally entertaining, more often interesting to look at. Wilde displays some surprising visual depth and vibrancy in her images, despite Booksmart dulling my expectations of any potential cinematic flair. The sound design (credited to Lawrence Zipf) is lush and immersive (certainly enhanced by my Dolby room screening). Chris Pine gives the best performance of the cast, as a trad self-help huckster, bar none. But beyond these glimmers of distinction, Don’t Worry Darling is a pseudo-ambitious film with not quite enough visual panache to overcome its side-stepping nothing of a narrative. It’s neither mystifying enough to coast on atmosphere, nor compelling enough to function as a competent mystery/thriller, let alone a true interrogation of its “return to tradition” themes that bypass race altogether.
Which brings me back to Mr. Styles, a component of Darling that is the very least of its problems. You wouldn’t think this, however, from the number of articles fixating on his presence in particular, as if it were the very thing that brings down this already flimsy house of cards. The subhead of a Buzzfeed piece purports analysis of Don’t Worry Darling but only digs into My Policeman. The Atlantic calls Styles the movie’s “biggest issue,” noting that Styles is at his worst when made to yell…but he’s not yelling for the entire movie. A Mother Jones piece titled “Don’t Worry Darling Would Be Better Without Harry Styles” even admits that Styles is fine, it’s just that his presence as a pop star was too distracting for the audience. But the media train that these outlets are indulging in is no different than the one which Styles’ persona has helped carry throughout the film’s press tour. It all feels like histrionics for the sake of getting one foot in the take factory.
For all that Styles is being flaunted as so show-stoppingly dismal in the film, you would expect him to have a far more prevalent role. In reality, I was surprised by how little Styles actually had to do and say as the film’s purported co-lead. The star of the show is none other than Miss Flo, but I must be honest and admit that I disagree with the general consensus that Pugh carries the whole thing on her shoulders. She does carry the film, but with persistent muscle spasms. In fact, I think it’s one of Pugh’s weaker showings. But this has nothing to do with me critiquing her abilities and everything to do with the script she’s been given as a one-dimensional character who mostly whines and wails.
I can’t yet speak for his performance in My Policeman, but in the case of Don’t Worry Darling, both Styles’ and Pugh’s performances feel equally dampened by script inadequacies. But I won’t be too lenient on him: Styles’ chief hindrance is that his face is vacant of expression. He’s got that “nothing behind his eyes” thing that Christian Bale once spoke of about Tom Cruise, which inspired Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman—only with far, far less charisma. So, Styles exposes his weaknesses whenever his character whips into furious rage or distress, attempting to articulate emotion with volume rather than facial physicality. Yet he is perfectly acceptable, even fine, in scenes of quiet, genial conversation. In fact, one could argue that the emptiness in his eyes even adds to the insidious false persona of his character.
My point is, Styles is nowhere near the level of godawful of, say, most of the cast of last year’s Dear Evan Hansen. The problem is that Jack and Alice are as paper-thin as the utopian community they live in. The material Styles has to work with is equally at fault for his performance as his face, which evokes that of an unoccupied tulpa awaiting the habitation of the Empty Man. I think most of the ardent vitriol hawked at Styles can, like the film itself, be chalked up to preconceived notions about the Great Don’t Worry Darling Disaster of 2022, audiences and critics alike itching for a trainwreck rivaling or exceeding that of the media circus surrounding production. I guess Styles had made himself an easy target, apparently void of brain synapses during Darling’s press tour. But for a guy who had “no idea what he was doing” when hired to act, he could’ve been worse.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.