In a sane world, before Hollywood got swallowed up by IP fever and every piece of mainstream entertainment became part of the ongoing (primarily online) cultural war, Don’t Worry Darling would be ‘just a movie.’ I don’t know or care if Florence Pugh and Olivia Wilde got along onset. Moreover, I’m pretty sure the singer from One Direction didn’t intentionally spit on the star of Hell or High Water and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Removed from the backstage melodrama and Venice premiere intrigue, it is indeed just a pretty good movie. Olivia Wilde’s second theatrical feature is, above all, a ‘Look what I can do!” filmmaker flex in service of an all-in movie star performance from Florence Pugh. It won’t win any Oscars, but it’s consistently entertaining, with more than enough cinematic spit-n-polish to justify a babysitter and big-screen theatrical viewing.
The screenplay, courtesy of Bookmark co-writer (and sole screenwriter of Netflix’s delightful rom-com Set It Up) Katie Silberman, is pretty formulaic. It’s not like we haven’t seen films like this countless times. The film amusingly drops you right into a big party scene, as the men and women living in the company town of Victory, California. It is seemingly modeled on 1950s Americana while also intended to remind you of World War II-era “secret cities” (where men went off to build the atomic bomb while their ‘blissfully unaware’ wives played house). Victory is run and overseen by the mysterious Jack (Chris Pine). His company subsidizes every material want and need with the understanding that the wives do their wifely duties and never leave the town. Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold. One housewife, Alice (Pugh), starts stumbling upon dark secrets that exist just past suburbia.
There are enough homages to other ‘your ideal world isn’t ideal’ films (The Stepford Wives is an obvious inspiration) and television shows (I’m surprised Warner Bros. hasn’t tried to sell it as “WandaVision, with sex!”) that it should come with a ‘works cited’ page. Still, in an era of revamps, remakes and reboots, Don’t Worry Darling is at least a “rip-off, don’t remake” original. While the film’s eventual twists, turns and reveals aren’t going to blow your mind, Wilde directs the hell out of this thing. Even if you guess the destination, there is plenty to chew on during the journey. It’s another example of how a film’s worth can be less what it’s about than how it’s about it. We get scrumptious, Hollywood-worthy production values going hand in hand with fluid set pieces, juicy character turns, hot movie stars and unapologetic R-rated female pleasure.
Yes, Florence Pugh gets oral copulation from onscreen spouse Harry Styles in the film’s opening scenes, which might have been par for the course in the early 1990’s erotic thriller boom. Pugh is as good as you’d expect here, as a young woman finding cracks in the façade and constantly getting gaslight about the eventual truth. Pine relishes the chance to play a smarmy villain, and the film uses his devious charms sparingly. Styles is as good as he needs to be, and frankly, I’d argue some of the criticism of his performance thus far has been more about the character than the actor. He’s a wet noodle, seemingly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Styles brings a presumption of innocence or willful naiveté. You question how much he knows in a way you wouldn’t with, say, the originally cast Shia LaBeouf.
Olivia Wilde has a small but crucial supporting role as a kind of den mother of the group, while Gemma Chan has only a few choice moments as Pine’s wife and the town dance teacher. KiKi Layne does a lot with very little. It’s probably not an accident that this dark-skinned Black woman finds herself unable to cope with the conventionally ‘perfect’ post-World War II community. It’s an example of race-conscious, rather than race-blind, casting. The rest of the cast, including Nick Kroll, mostly fades into the background. Most of the melodrama centers around the heroine, her husband and the presumed puppet master. I will concede that the second and third acts are more redundant and thus longer than they need to be. Still, Wilde knows that this could be her only mid-budget, non-franchise, R-rated movie, and she’s leaving it all on the table.
Wilde and Silberman seem less interested in the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ than the ‘why.’ There is a refreshing lack of explanation regarding (potentially) fantastical elements. There’s a refreshing faith in moviegoers to accept elements and plot beats sans hand-holding exposition because they make sense for the characters. I’d expect the perpetually online to claim to be performatively confused while regular (or irregular) moviegoers accept the film on its own terms. For general moviegoers who want to see a fantastical erotic thriller with gorgeous movie stars amid a visually dynamic ‘fantasy’ world, that’s exactly what the film delivers. At least in terms of directorial talent, Olivia Wilde proves that Bookmark was no fluke. Pugh gets an old-school star turn straight out of the early 1990s. Even a decade ago, Don’t Worry Darling would just be a good movie. I hope that’s still enough.