By Scott Cole
Director: Olivia Wilde
Starring: Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pine, Gemma Chan,
Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial effort Don’t Worry Darling is certainly a throwback to an earlier time but perhaps not quite in the way she may have intended. Despite the fact that the film takes place in a 1950s oasis, a major studio thriller of this particular kind feels more like a lost film of the mid-to-late 1990s. It’s a production that is quite impressive in all technical aspects but struggles with pacing issues and a conclusion that opens up a can of worms as far as plot holes are concerned. For all the rumors of behind-the-scenes turmoil surrounding this film, it ends up feeling surprisingly inconsequential after all is said and done.
The film sort of plays like a cross between The Stepford Wives and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Florence Pugh stars as Alice, a housewife living in a 1950s town called Victory with her hard-working husband Jack (Harry Styles). This is a tight-knit community as all of the husbands work together as a member of the top secret Victory Project team, and the wives all spend the days doing housework and enjoying afternoon cocktails in this idyllic setting located somewhere in the middle of the desert. The rules set forth by the community leader Frank (Chris Pine) dictate that it is dangerous to leave the Victory compound so everyone should stay put and not ask too many questions.
Alice begins to notice some strange occurrences. First, her friend Margaret (KiKi Layne) has begun to suffer possible delusions as she warns that something nefarious is afoot. As the days go on, Alice begins to have disturbing dreams and take notice more and more of the abnormality of her reality in Victory, and she is especially put off by the secrecy behind her husband’s work and Frank’s persona. Ignoring Jack and her best friend Bunny (Wilde), Alice continues to poke and prod to find out what’s really happening in Victory and why everyone she knows is being kept there and, more importantly, is alarmingly uneager to leave.
Thrillers of this sort demand a certain propulsion and energy. When you think of the best and most suspenseful of these, adjectives like “taut” and “focused” come to mind. Don’t Worry Darling is curiously languid, especially in its first half. There are several instances of scenes just going on too long, most noticeably a party scene where we are first introduced to Pine’s antagonist character. Here he gives one of several long, bloated speeches in Katie Silberman’s screenplay where you have to constantly stop your brain from checking out. Every time a character in this film steps forward to speak to a crowd of people, you can rest assured it’s going to be a diatribe about the “mission” and its unparalleled importance. Meanwhile we just want the story to get where it’s going and stop spinning its wheels.
Visually, the film looks stellar. Wilde works with her cinematographer Matthew Libatique to create a look and style that looks vivid and sharp. Interestingly enough, the film looks worse when it tries to delve into the thriller territory of creepy images. Meant to unsettle and frighten the audience, Wilde includes several moments of quick cut images (mostly in Alice’s disturbing dreams) involving ballet dancers with scary faces as the centerpiece. My guess would be Wilde was heavily influenced by David Lynch’s use of images in his films, but it becomes a pale imitation that doesn’t vibe with the rest of the film.
The performances are, across the board, very compelling. Pugh is as focused and present as ever and really fights to get the audience sympathetic with Alice’s plight to good effect. Styles provides able support when needed but really shines when he’s at odds with Alice and clearly conflicted about what should be done. Pine is a slithery film villain in the classic sense giving just enough to be clear to Alice and the audience how awful he is, while everyone else sees a charismatic genius. I also found Wilde’s performance to be excellent and, at times, touching. I will never understand how actors are able to direct themselves on screen, it’s a definite skill and she pulls it off exceedingly well.
Don’t Worry Darling’s failings are not due to lack of trying on anyone’s part. It is definitely one of the best looking and best acted films I’ve seen this year, but it’s all in the service of a rather pedestrian and dull thriller. I had the feeling that I would love to see a different kind of story with these actors and this setting. All of the pieces are here for something great, but the concept and execution just leave the viewer wanting something else. Ultimately, because it is a thriller, the bottom line with Don’t Worry Darling is that it simply isn’t very thrilling or suspenseful so you leave the theater disappointed and scratching your head.