“Listen closely and don’t blink,” Olivia Wilde said. When the Q&A host of the IMAX early screening asked Wilde if she had a final piece of advice for the viewing audience, and that was what she recommended.
Her answer to that question invites a close examination of the film, scanning the seams of “Don’t Worry Darling” to see if the movie can bear the duress or crack under the pressure, revealing a doughy, under-baked middle.
“Don’t Worry Darling” has a pleasant taste but could have benefitted from a little more time in the oven.
On the surface, “Don’t Worry Darling” has all the ingredients to be one of the few non-intellectual property tentpole films of 2022. The film is based on a spec script by writers Carey and Shane van Dyke that earned a spot on 2019′s Black List of the industry’s most-liked screenplays yet to be produced. Katie Silberman finished off the screenplay for Wilde’s film after the pair collaborated on 2019′s “Booksmart,” a critical hit that put Wilde on the map as a director. New Line Cinema won the bidding war for Wilde’s second film and assembled a stacked cast, starring Florence Pugh and Harry Styles as Alice and Jack Chambers, two residents of the Victory Project community, a closed-off community of 1950s Americana where the women stay at home and the men work mysterious day jobs. Chris Pine, Gemma Chan, Nick Kroll, and Wilde herself round out the ensemble in supporting roles.
The production and marketing of the film, however, have become inescapably engrossed in controversy. Originally, Shia LaBeouf had been cast in Styles’ role before exiting the project for unclear reasons, claiming he quit the film despite earlier reporting suggesting that Wilde had fired him for having a “combative energy” on set. Pugh’s lack of involvement in the film’s promotion has been interpreted as her having an icy relationship with Wilde, potentially due to Wilde’s on-and-off-set relationship with Styles. Not to mention Styles alleged spitting on Pine at the Venice Film Festival, which both actors have denied.
That being said, audiences should not become so embroiled in the film’s off-screen controversies as to miss its on-screen intrigue.
“Don’t Worry Darling” has a visual flair sorely lacking in the CGI-fests that dominate the big screen in today’s cinemascape. The movie was filmed in Palm Springs and combined on-location shooting and practical set design to create an oasis of cookie-cutter, mid-century modern homes and pastels contrasted against a harsh desert. The design team on this film left no stone unturned, from the decor of the Chambers’ home to Pine’s immaculate wardrobe as Frank, the Victory Project’s founder. In the same IMAX early-access screening Q&A, when asked what drew him to the film, Styles said that the aesthetic of the film appealed to him and that Wilde and her team had compiled moodboards that resonated with him. That attention to detail pays off in the film’s look.
Wilde and cinematographer Matthew Libatique do a slick job with the camera as well, employing numerous close-ups on Pugh and other characters to establish the underlying creepiness of the Victory Project community. Early in the film, for example, the ladies of the town gather for a ballet lesson, like modern suburban moms would go to a spin class, sharing gossip before the instructor arrives. The instructor turns out to be Shelley (Chan), Frank’s wife. Once she walks in the door, the enthusiastic ladies become suddenly and eerily quiet, demonstrating the level of control she wields over the women of the community. The tension is palpable on Pugh’s face.
In fact, the camera almost never leaves Pugh behind as she dominates every frame. The story relies on her, and almost her alone, to communicate the strangeness of life in the Victory Project. As each event unfolds, the people in Alice Chambers’ life gaslight her, refusing to believe that she is seeing the community unravel. They reassure her that the only place she can find safety and happiness is the Victory Project. The audience, due to the amount of time we spend with her, becomes Alice’s only allies. Even her husband does not receive the same level of attention and screen time. If it was in doubt before this film, Pugh proves her star power going forward.
As Styles’ performance goes, he has enough chemistry with Pugh to hold the film together, but his lack of formal experience in acting shows when at his most expressive. Styles does not instill the character of Jack Chambers with enough internal complexity to make the outbursts truly believable. Part of that issue might be that the audience only sees Jack when he shares the room with Alice, at their home or at social gatherings together, which adds to the plot’s mystique and offers a commentary on the men’s loyalty to their Victory Project overlord, Frank, ahead of their wives. Pine gives a commendable account as Frank, embodying a cult leader-slash-tech-CEO with ease.
Ultimately, though, for all the film’s focus on the interiority of Alice Chambers’ experience in the Victory Project, the story forgets to look at itself in the mirror and truly consider the consequences of its twists and turns.
Wilde has stated that the story is inspired by films like “The Truman Show” and “Inception,” and while “Don’t Worry Darling” has the visual quality to match the spectacle of those films, it fails to explore its themes with sufficient depth. The plot unravels rather quickly, prioritizing camera work over tying its emotional threads together neatly. The film becomes almost too subtle in the third act to the point of underdeveloping the very themes that supposedly drove its creation.
With “Don’t Worry Darling,” Wilde has created an ambitious star-vehicle for Pugh and Styles that falters under the weight of its own expectations, lacking the ideological substance to back up its considerable style.