Where better to set a paradisal experimental housing development than Palm Springs? The sun is always shining and the empty desert expands as far as the eye can see in every direction, a vast, impenetrable barrier between manicured reality and the rest of the world. It all but guarantees privacy and safety, perhaps the two most cherished values in suburban society, and the two values most under fire in Olivia Wilde’s psycho-sexual thriller Don’t Worry Darling.
Welcome to Victory, a brand-spanking-new 1950s community where plasticky suburbanites beam over their single-acre, Stepford-esque plots of land topped with sumptuous mid-century houses you might find on Cielo Drive, perfect identical yards sporting a green so verdant they could be astroturf, and all the teak and crushed velvet you can dream up.
In the morning, happy husbands march outside, briefcases in hand, while the wives line up on crisp concrete driveways in a servile manner to kiss them and wave goodbye as they drive off in unison to Victory HQ, where they work Important Jobs in the “development of progressive materials” their wives don’t know or care to know about. The women immediately snap into action, cleaning house and doing chores in their color-clad shirtwaist dresses until it’s time to make dinner and shove it all off the table mid-orgasm in a bout of compulsive “Honey, I’m home!” sex.
Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) live in a cul-de-sac (I suspect everyone probably does) next to their best couple friends—the likes of which include Dean (Nick Kroll), Peg (Kate Berlant), and Alice’s best friend Bunny (Wilde). All of them, but especially the men, have a God-tier reverence for Victory community founder Frank (Chris Pine), a cult leader-meets-Frank T.J. Mackey type with the one thing people like that lack: tact. He smilingly graces rooms with his presence and warmly delivers overconfident philosophies that sound like veiled coercions… but into what? “Chaos reigns over the auspices of reality.” “There is beauty in control. There is grace in symmetry. We move as one.”
They’re the kinds of statements that are vague, manipulative, and power-hungry-sounding enough to raise questions for no reason, though there are a garish number of reasons for those looking, and they spoil the fun more often than not. Wilde doesn’t do a great job at pacing the mystery, imbuing the looming questions with intrigue, or veiling what could be strong surprise elements of her sophomore feature.
In that sense, it’s hard not to spoil Don’t Worry Darling. It wears its “twist” on its sleeve from the beginning, arguably even in the trailer. The exact details are spoilable, yes, but the big “What’s Happening” is captured in the one-line synopsis on IMDb. No one will watch through their eerily indefectible routines thinking, “This looks fine! Nothing fishy here!”
Pugh also plays her part so well that you can tell there’s something wrong in her gut from the start. No doubt she’s got “terribly depressed partner who feels cornered” down pat at this point in her career. Styles’ performance is neither here nor there—certainly not bad, but there was nothing particularly worth praising outside of the choice itself, which will eventually be revealed as great casting in the spoilery details.
At first Alice brushes her own little concerns aside. But when her friend Margaret (Kiki Layne) ostracizes herself from the community and starts asking questions like “why are we here?” with knowing tears in her eyes, Alice’s world turns upside-down. To the others, she’s just losing her mind, becoming like Margaret. But for Alice, the hunt for truth begins.
The more she searches, the more Jack and the others remind her how wonderfully safe everything is in Victory and how much danger exists in most living environments. The ongoing conversation about it between Alice and company delicately elucidates how the concept of safety, and the value people find in it, can be so easily overemphasized to scare people into following the status quo, which in the case of women in Hollywood (like Wilde) simply isn’t an option. To twist a healthy sense of safety into a reason not to live is, ironically, a fear tactic used by those who cling to the past—those who refuse change, like Frank. He preys on a sense of safety that cripples people into a terrified, exhausted, unlived life, all in the name of creating his own world.
The music is delightful, loaded with ‘50s doo-wop hits and Les Paul-like instrumental pop classics imported from a beach cabana far, far away. They’re chosen to reflect a time period, sure, but more than that to reflect a theme: the blind optimism and social negligence of the picturesque American Dream lifestyle that used to be sold in magazines. You know, the same one thriving today in the same stateside suburbs? (Now it’s sold on the Internet, yay!) The Crew-Cuts’ “Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)” is a ripe example: “Life could be a dream / Sh-boom, if I could take you to a paradise up above / If you will tell me I’m the only one that you love.”
It’s a serene image, one that Blue Velvet both captured and unearthed the darkness in with much greater depth and impact. The next line in the song is more telling: “Every time I look at you / Something is on my mind / If you do what I want you to / Baby, we could be so fine.” Wilde has her moments of subtle excavation. She doesn’t bring much tonal flare, but there is a new perspective.
She focuses the sex scenes on female pleasure, as is uncommon in Hollywood—usually in the form of Jack going down on Alice with rapt ferocity. An early doing-donuts-in-the-desert sequence is captured with real fascination. The use of reversing images usually catches the viewer off-guard effectively. But the creativity is run-of-the-mill good execution––not impressive or unimpressive, just exactly what you expect.
It has all the elements bound to get new movie lovers excited and tire the most veteran watchers. That’s not to suggest one party is right or wrong about their preferences, but that the chasm between the two groups’ personal watch histories is great, and Wilde isn’t pulling many new strings for those more familiar with the medium. Ultimately, Don’t Worry Darling is an elaborate game of house with little pay-off, the movie version of a fake tan: it gets the job done, but might sour your interest in the tan itself in the process.
Don’t Worry Darling premiered at the Venice Film Festival and will open on September 23.