The very first film I critiqued for The Queer Review was Olivia Wilde’s wonderful feature directing debut, Booksmart. In it, she showed off her ability to generate an infectious energy, riotous humor and a refreshingly frank look at strong female characters. I couldn’t wait for her follow-up, and when the trailers for Don’t Worry Darling first appeared, my jaw dropped at the stunning look and feel of what came across as a creepy mind-bender along the likes of The Stepford Wives. Flaws and all, and this film has its share, this film continues to establish Wilde as an exciting cinematic voice.
While on a surface level the movie seems to veer off in a completely different direction from its predecessor, it shares a lot of the same DNA. They both feature vibrant, vivid performances from their female leads and have some of that messy energy Wilde seems so adept at cultivating. While not entirely satisfying in the way Booksmart delivered as a teen comedy, Don’t Worry Darling has its share of secrets and a twist, which I’ll admit I’m a sucker for when it comes to thrillers. I always want to know the big surprise, even with films I’ll never see. What can I say? I’m a moth to the flames of this genre.
Without spoiling anything, Don’t Worry Darling finds married couple Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) living in a 1950s private community called Victory. With its Edward Scissorhands-esque color-blocked aesthetic—courtesy of the very talented production designer Katie Byron—we’re dropped into an idyllic patriarchal setting where the men all dash off to work at the same time in their finned cars, while their impeccable wives with their styled hairdos and hoop skirts blow them kisses and then head inside to vacuum their floors. What the men do all day at their jobs is a mystery beyond the stated manufacturing of “progressive materials”, but as long as the wives don’t ask any questions, and definitely do not go anywhere near their headquarters, they can all live in a sex-filled, heavy-partying land of plenty in a “Make America Great Again” kind of way.
Obviously, all is not quite right in this world, and through Alice’s eyes, we start to see the cracks. This leads to several stunning set pieces including Alice fighting against a glass window in a collision course with her face, disturbing sequences involving KiKi Layne as an increasingly unhinged housewife, and a visually breathtaking car chase. It all leads to the aforementioned big reveal, which truthfully feels somewhat like a been there/done that letdown. If you’ve ever seen any of the films this one seems to reference, you’ve seen this plot point done better. It feels strange to say that Wilde tells the third act too visually when a little more dialogue would have given this section more layers. The screenplay by Katie Silberman, with a story by Carey and Shane Van Dyke, leaves the viewer with too many questions and would have benefited from a tad more backstory for our leads. It also feels repetitious at times, but that’s unfortunately baked into the concept. I also grew tired of the constant needle drops on the soundtrack, an issue I had with Booksmart as well. Wilde will hopefully shy away from overstuffing her films with music in the future.
These problems notwithstanding, I had a good time watching this gorgeous looking film, expertly shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Pugh carries the movie with every emotion clearly visible on her face and a sense of urgency you can feel. She reminded me of Kathleen Turner here, a natural born star. Styles also does well with his underwritten role, nicely traversing the physicality of his character throughout his varied journey. It’s a quiet, unfussy performance.
Pine has a creepy command of his community as leader, oozing a nefarious charm, easily justifying how he has everyone under his spell. The biggest standout in this talented cast, aside from Pugh, however, is Wilde herself. She lives up to her last name with a ferocious, unpredictable energy only to surprise us later with some unexpected depth. Same goes for her directing style; fluid, exciting, and visceral. While undone by its problems in the end, Wilde remains a directing talent to keep watching as she expands upon her already impressive cinematic vocabulary.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Don’t Worry Darling opened in U.S. theaters on September 23rd, 2022.