Since its inception, Olivia Wilde’s highly anticipated thriller “Don’t Worry Darling” has taken the internet by storm, unleashing an avalanche of rumors on social media — including, most notably, lead actress Florence Pugh’s alleged feud with Wilde and lack of involvement with promotion. Despite this drama, I entered an empty Nugget Theater with optimism. The film has an admittedly impressive cast — with notable names like Harry Styles, Gemma Chan, Chris Pine and more — and is directed by the celebrated Olivia Wilde, acclaimed for her debut movie, “Booksmart.” I wondered: When stripped of its social-media buzz, will “Don’t Worry Darling” still succeed?
The film is set in the picturesque, 1950s town of Victory — a suburban town which feels glamorous, if not painfully sterile. Husbands in suits return home from work in cherry-red cadillacs and their wives cook dinner with a martini in hand, all slicked in desert sunlight. The men work for the charismatic Frank (Chris Pine), as part of an eerily-vague “Victory Project” that aims to produce “progressive energy.” Initially, protagonist Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) fits well into the town life, dancing happily with her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), and attending chic dinner parties with the other wives.
However, as the film progresses, Alice begins to notice that all is not as it seems in Victory as she becomes aware of an alarming side to the Victory Project and her seemingly perfect life. First, Margaret (Kiki Layne), one of the other wives in Victory, begins having aggressive outbursts before suddenly disappearing, and then Alice has a bizarre vision of an unexplained plane crash in the desert. Once Alice’s distrust of the Victory Project solidifies after a variety of odd scenarios, the film transforms into a blur of surreal scenes as the dark reality of the town seems to unravel. Inevitably — and without giving too much away — Alice discovers that the entire town of Victory is essentially controlled by Frank in a dystopian world resembling a simulation.
Almost immediately in the film, there are moments of transgression — a lapse of order, when this placid surface is broken — that indicate something is amiss in Victory. Margaret screams out from a locked door at a dinner party. Alice dramatically smashes an egg in her hand, later almost strangling herself with saran wrap. The artifice of Victory is painfully obvious from the film’s onset, lathered on with everything from the too-bright lacquer of the cars to Frank’s propaganda-like speeches about the Victory Project.
Instead of totally convincing the audience of the world and then suddenly complicating their understanding of it, Wilde makes clear from the beginning: Victory is not real. There is no surprise reveal or shock in the viewers as the fallacy of Victory is clear from the start — for a genre of movie that is dependent on thrill, “Don’t Worry Darling” lacks exactly that.
In emulating the 1950s — when misogyny wholly dictated social order — through costume and set design, Wilde overtly questions traditional gender expectations, particularly within the scope of white, middle-class domestic life. In the town of Victory, there is a strict understanding of gender roles, and the aesthetic world of the film parallels this rigid social structure. Wilde makes this social order clear with the movie’s set; the town’s mid-century homes look essentially identical, the men drive the same cars and the women attend ballet classes, where the teacher repeats the line: “There is beauty in control. There is grace in symmetry.” Wilde pushes at the concept of order in all too heavy-handed strokes — providing an endless stream of motifs that attempts to explore the dangers of adhering to and immersing in a social order — but ultimately fails in this goal.
It’s difficult to feel invested in a film when its general trajectory feels obvious; early on, viewers will correctly predict that Alice will eventually uncover the true nature of the Victory Project. However, while Victory is clearly some sort of alternate reality, Wilde never properly clarifies the precise workings of this dystopian world. Countless details are never explained, such as the plane crash or Frank’s seeming attraction to Alice. There is no structure to this world — leaving viewers confused. The overarching themes of “Don’t Worry Darling” — misogyny, gender roles, and oppression of marriage — feel mercilessly overdone, while the necessary, if less exciting, mechanics of the film are forgotten — such as the explanation of the simulation. In an attempt to create an aesthetically pleasing film, important plot devices were forgotten.
The savior of the film, if any, is Florence Pugh. Pugh delivers a captivating performance of Alice’s descent into madness, bringing an incredible force to each scene. While I may have been unconvinced by the portrayal of Victory itself, I was always mesmerized by Alice. Pugh carries an uncontrived air, naturally persuading viewers to believe and root for her. Her delivery of each word feels intentional without being forced. While the rest of the film seems to collapse into a dreamlike fog, Pugh grounds her character in raw human emotion. She simplifies a complicated situation: Alice craves to be loved by her husband and supported in her endeavor to uncover the truth.
Unlike his co-star, however, Styles failed to convey a properly layered character. Jack presents as a charming husband, but without any of the necessary mystery to deepen his character. By the end of “Don’t Worry Darling,” viewers are supposed to understand Jack as a villainous character, but Styles doesn’t adequately demonstrate the darker side that this trope demands.
In the end, Wilde spent too much time telling the audience what to think about, rather than developing meaning and depth in the fictional world she creates. All at once, Wilde gives too much away while not explaining enough. Viewers are left confused, unsure of the parameters of the world that has been created or the film’s complex workings. In its most direct interpretation, “Don’t Worry Darling” attempts to force audience members to challenge the social structure of our own world through creating and then dismantling a false one. In other words, Victory stands as an allegorical representation of our own society, and Wilde exposes its flaws in an effort to reveal our own contemporary challenges. However, neither the goals of “Don’t Worry Darling” nor its method seem to succeed. Wilde’s mission felt incomplete: By the credits of the film, I returned to our own world without any unique perspective on social order.