Don’t Worry Darling is a movie about men imprisoning women, physically and metaphorically, for not meeting men’s expectations about how they ought to act. The film critiques a brand of contemporary male chauvinist faux-intellectualism, including an antagonist (Chris Pine’s Frank) that director Olivia Wilde says is based on Jordan Peterson. For all the hubbub and controversy in the last few weeks leading up to release, it’s an at-best entirely ordinary movie carried almost entirely by Florence Pugh’s performance.
As foretold in advertising, Don’t Worry Darling is about the dark secrets underpinning a picturesque slice of Americana. Taking its plot at face value, Alice (Pugh) lives with her husband Jack (Harry Styles) in a picture-perfect cul-de-sac neighborhood in the California desert. The tightknit community is made up of picturesque couples who seem to have been pulled from the 1950s, except that there’s a surprising amount of interracial relationships. All the husbands in town work for the Victory project, ominously named and very hush-hush. At a community party thrown in Frank and Shelley’s (Gemma Chan) backyard, Margaret (KiKi Layne) exclaims that none of them (herself included) are supposed to be here. Apparently, she hasn’t been feeling well since walking into the desert with her son, claiming he was taken away from her for disobeying. Alice later witnesses Margaret attempt suicide, while everyone else says she fell in the kitchen; these conflicting stories and Margaret’s subsequent disappearance lead Alice to question the world she lives in.
Things get curiouser and curiouser as Alice questions her reality and her own sanity, the strangest part about it being that the world seemingly punishes her for asking questions in a way that causes her to ask more questions. Don’t Worry Darling presents her psychological fraying through nightmarish imagery in a visual metaphor about psychic and cultural conditioning. This includes—and is basically limited to—choreographed ballerinas, a dilating eyeball and an explosion of red on white that looks like an injection into a brain. The display is presented in abrupt enough fashion that it invites ambiguity. Whether it’s supposed to be a literal expression of her experience or merely what is presented to us, it would have been better served with more variety in imagery.
Eventually, the perspective shifts—very briefly—from Alice to Jack as the audience learns the material price the men are paying to smother these women in lives they didn’t choose, while those men insist the women are happy. The movie speaks to the popularity of misogynistic self-help gurus; that it lands on the sometimes-polished Peterson rather than the younger, bombastic, acerbic types that have begun to populate YouTube, Twitch and TikTok is a matter of timing and influence. In any case, that plague of internet psychosis—where loudly and brazenly reinforcing outdated status quos while claiming to be some maverick truthteller—is worth critiquing.
But the effectiveness is probably limited here by uneven execution: Pugh is good, but the film is mostly forgettable, a nod toward and composite of more iconic films like Stepford Wives, The Matrix, Black Swan and—in the space between the reveal and the conclusion—A Cure for Wellness. If Don’t Worry Darling wants us to focus on the weirdness of Frank’s message and its sinister underpinnings before Alice makes the other neighborhood women aware they’ve been duped, it would serve to have him explain his philosophy more practically. Although, the hypnotic nature of Frank’s radio broadcasts being played on repeat with the vague message about the importance of order and the necessity of hierarchy did seem uncannily like the real thing, and helped make him a somewhat effective villain. Pine’s most interesting piece of dialogue is at the pool party, making phallic allusions in his description of the Victory community as an opportunity…but this doesn’t get nearly enough time or attention.
Vagueness and allusion can stem from a lot of sources, such as a lack of conviction or a need to obscure sinister purpose. While in real life, nostalgic chauvinists are often tied to overt white supremacy in social and traditional media, they don’t exclusively live there. Victory presents racial harmony as a given that it does not confront, which isn’t an outright failure of the film so much as a curiosity. The principal characters are white, but in their same socioeconomic strata and good standing in the neighborhood are mixed race couples. Some audience members will note (though the film does not) that the first woman silenced is Black. While it doesn’t detail every reason why this fantasy of the 1950s is a farce, it does correctly identify that it’s all too “good” to be true. But the problem that Don’t Worry Darling has with this imagined version of the 1950s is tied entirely to middle class women’s confinement to the home.
Don’t Worry Darling’s imagined, idealized mid-century never existed outside of advertisements and shows that ended up in TV Land reruns—but even in those places, it tended to be monochromatic. We can accept that Don’t Worry Darling is a middle-class white feminist critique of the patriarchy without pointed racial dimensions, one with its class focus eliding poverty. Every piece of art has its perspective. Maybe that uninterrogated lower-case inclusivity is part of the Victory project, a signpost to the audience about its fabricated nature; maybe it’s a message from the artists that race and class analysis without feminism are dead letters.
Regardless, as Alice puts together the pieces, audiences will come to understand, if not in every detail, how the community came to Victory. Don’t Worry Darling leaves threads dangling in the pursuit of provocativeness over satisfaction. Though the movie isn’t successful, that’s one of the things I respect most about it. Don’t Worry Darling’s relatively simple and familiar premise would have been served by going further into its thematic exploration that “men want to control women, and would rather suffer than grow to maintain that control.” That is, to do more with its hints that something is off than some non sequiturs that, once you understand the world, call themselves into question. Unfortunately, the writing is so pedestrian that the non-Pugh performances, while perfectly adequate (Wilde is compelling as Alice’s neighbor and best-frenemy), can’t save things. Some scenes fit awkwardly, as if they’re from different drafts of the same script or edits of the same picture. For instance, hearing Nick Kroll chastise a minor character for wanting to get to meet Frank made me less curious about Frank and more curious why Kroll is in the movie. It seems like it’s playing for a joke, like his character is going to say he’s just kidding, until you realize it’s not—but this provides more awkwardness than menace. Shorn of its contrived and drama-filled production context, Don’t Worry Darling’s just a middling thriller that doesn’t give its cast enough to do. It would have been more interesting as a literal one-woman show than as a figurative one.
Director: Olivia Wilde
Writer: Katie Silberman
Starring: Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll, Chris Pine
Release Date: September 23, 2022
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.