Don’t Worry Darling has a lot of issues, but it has one especially back-breaking flaw, and that is the script. This story is busted. There are moments in the middle act where it shows some tension and promise, but far more moments that just don’t make any goddamned sense. Director Olivia Wilde has no writing credit, though it’s hard to believe that she had no input into the screenplay. Even if she just nodded and pointed at this script as the one she wanted to make as her sophomore effort following her buzzy teen comedy debut, Booksmart, then that’s a poor reflection on her.
While the story never gels, it slips into outright catastrophe in the final half hour with some storytelling decisions that are so bad they retroactively make the kinda-okay earlier moments worse. It’s simultaneously a convoluted pay-off and the dumbest possible twist; the kind that someone would jot on the back of a bar napkin after three drinks. I’ll keep the rest of this review spoiler free, but I assure you that you will be let down. (Hunter Allen at Kinemalogue proposes a different conclusion in his review that would have made much more sense without drastically altering much of the setup.)
The premise: Alice (Florence Pugh) lives in a pristine midcentury town called Victory with her husband Jack (Harry Styles), where the men go off to work some secret operation; and the women stay home and get to live perfect little housekeeper lives. There’s lots of dinner parties and social drinking. Definitely nothing ooky here. Wait, what’s all this ooky stuff? Could there be a dark secret at the heart of Victory?
The broken narrative DNA cripples everything else in the film. There are good movies with bad screenplays, but none of them are built as centrally around their ideas as this one. Everyone involved seems to believe that it is oh-so-clever to have a seeming utopia be toxic underneath the surface. It’s a metaphor, folks! Get it? The patriarchy is bad? Aren’t we so brave for saying so?
But if you start taking the components of Don’t Worry Darling one-by-one and tally up a ledger of the film’s accomplishments, you might start scratching your head and wondering if it actually is good. Don’t worry, it isn’t, but I wouldn’t blame you for at least thinking about it.
For starters, Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is some of my favorite of the year. The colors and textures of the film are excellent and rich, conveying the mahogany luxury that Victory offers to its residents. There’s some faux Technicolor and marvelous desert location shots that are simultaneously inviting and slightly poisoned. Libatique sells the film’s conceit through visual timbre alone.
I also love John Powell’s score and would place it only behind Michael Giacchino’s work in The Batman as my favorite of the year. He builds moody and jittery soundscapes that are reassembled from tiny samples and instrumental motifs. The music will hold in a tense, placid stillness for minutes at a time, only to lurch into hysteria with perfection. Great stuff.
Even Wilde acquits herself fairly well from a shot-by-shot technique perspective. Many of her compositions are striking and pleasing. She infuses moments with real intrigue, like a ballet class where Alice sees a nightmare in a ballet mirror that nobody else can see, or Victory honcho Frank (Chris Pines) interrupting a sex scene with his gaze.
On the other hand, Wilde’s big picture vision is way off. She fails to ever make Victory feel concrete, which means there’s nothing unsettling about watching it unspool. And the sense of unease doesn’t come in an escalating drip that builds suspense. Instead, everything feels off from the start, and the narrative stakes shift with herky-jerk imbalance: We’ll go from a dinner party where almost everyone feels artificially happy — vaguely unsettling — to a woman attempting suicide — deeply horrifying — with no obvious thought into how these ideas interlock. There’s also a disturbing lack of agency to our protagonist, even by the end. Perhaps some of that is intentionally thematic, but it’s hard to get invested when everything just feels so preordained.
The acting is adequate, with a few blemishes. Pugh is certainly up to the task of carrying the movie; I’m not sure she’s a movie star, but she’s a reliable workhorse in pictures like this where we need to detect some strength and hunger in a protagonist’s trying times, even if those traits aren’t present in the screenplay. Pine is good too, as is most of the supporting cast. It’s Styles that’s the downer: He’s fine when he needs to be a smarmy charmer, but as soon as he needs to project any emotion or interiority onto the screen, he falls apart.
It is pretty well documented that this movie had a rocky production. But if you look at the stories that actually made blog headlines, they’re nearly all petty interpersonal conflicts with lots of disputed he-said-she-said, none of it of substance. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire; I’m sure there were creative collisions in addition to cast drama. But all the gossip is ultimately fleeting and tangential background noise to the basic fact of the film that it’s just not especially good.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film