Florence Pugh and Harry Styles in a scene from Don’t Worry Darling. Photograph: Merrick Morton/AP

Olivia Wilde’s slick thriller set in the 1950s has nothing to say after all the commotion, rumors, and conflict reports.

Warning: major spoilers

After a disastrous publicity tour that has turned into an entire TV season’s worth of water-cooler drama, fretting about the movie Don’t Worry Darling has turned into a weeks-long activity for the pop culturally aware. This weekend saw the release of the movie, a psychological thriller starring Florence Pugh and unknown pop artist Harry Styles. The verdict was favorable; estimates place the opening weekend revenue at $19.2 million. Now that it’s out, we can follow the studio’s and director Olivia Wilde’s advice and evaluate the picture on the basis of its own merits rather than rumors about real-life people (spoilers ahead).

The issue is that it’s hard to separate the movie from the drama occurring off-screen. There is a glaring disparity between what we are promised is occurring and what we actually witness in both the PR for Don’t Worry Darling and the movie itself. In the case of the movie, which Wilde has labeled as a vehicle for feminine pleasure and a feminist thriller, there is a clear contrast between the film’s stunning visual accomplishment and its cheesy, meaningless plot.

Despite Wilde’s protestations that the “endless tabloid gossip” about on-set conflict and problems with Pugh is internet nonsense and sexist double standards, something was obviously wrong on the PR front (“Am I envious of my male colleagues in the way that they seem to be able to live their lives without as much judgment? Yes, I do,” she said to Kelly Clarkson last week. “I think, ‘Man, that guy must be cool. Every step he takes is being applauded by everyone (“). Pugh, a big release’s main actress, avoided practically all promotional obligations with the exception of the Venice Video Festival, where she failed to mention Wilde (if you need a reminder, there are a ton of TikToks/explainers breaking down the Venice premiere like the Zapruder film). In January 2021, according to Vulture, the two got into a shouting dispute that led to discussions with Warner Bros execs to assure Pugh would take part in any marketing at all. (A statement sent by forty members of the crew denied “any allegations of unprofessional behavior” on the scene and referred to rumors of a heated altercation between Pugh and Wilde as “completely false.”)

I could go on and on about the press tour that was uncommon and the off-screen drama, some of which (“spitgate”) are merely filler. However, a large portion of it is the expected reaction to viewing anything that contradicts the dominant narrative. The gap arouses curiosity and annoyance. People will fill it with rumors that may be both justifiably inquisitive and misogynistic, extra, and judgemental.

Sadly, the contrast between what the movie seems to be attempting to do (or what Wilde claims it is accomplishing) and what it really accomplishes has the opposite impact. The twist (again, spoilers) is stunning because it’s almost obscene for a picture that Wilde has marketed for female pleasure to have such pleasure be nonconsensual, in the service of captivity. Pugh’s Alice is locked in a 1950s simulation because Styles’s Jack wants her to himself all the time. But it disables rather than activates the brain. It would take a lack of critical thinking on your part to find it shocking or to not quickly see flaws in it (What did the aircraft mean? Did nobody have a feeling of their own past? Why did Gemma Chan’s persona turn on Frank, played by Chris Pine? Pugh is very believable throughout, but why did Alice, who is meant to be intelligent, disclose her doubts to Bunny played by Wilde rather than Margaret played by Kiki Layne?) And it would take a lot of lack of thought to interpret it as a feminist remark.

The movie ties together several fundamental concepts—that some males see women’s job as a danger, yearn for obedience, and worship a return to oppressive 1950s gender norms—without any consistency or characterisation. It extensively mimics previous, superior films, such The Truman Show and The Matrix, as well as Jordan Peele’s Get Out’s zeitgeist-inspired politics and sunken place pacification. Many of its narrative points are similar to those in The Stepford Wives (the 1975 film, a thriller with dark satirical roots): the menacing 50s housewife aesthetic, the spiky best friend, the ladies asking their husbands “what do you think they do up there?”, a prohibited men’s club, etc. With a piece of furniture, the two main characters struck their spouses who had been revealed to be their kidnappers. The Stepford Wives similarly extended sexism to absurd lengths—the men, who were neither as charming or attractive as the DWD spouses, replaced the women with robots—but at least the plot’s denouement made sense.

Wilde deserves praise for his work as a filmmaker. She gathered a group of master craftspeople, including Matthew Libatique’s beautiful cinematography, Arianne Phillips’ bright costumes, and John Powell’s thundering soundtrack, which adds more tension than any of Alice’s unexpected findings. Wilde shows a talent for portraying the destabilized brain, as seen in the drug trip scene in her debut movie Booksmart. Alice’s flashbacks, memory jolts, and hallucinations, which frequently involve dance moves a la Busby Berkeley, are visually compelling even when they serve the purpose of being completely obvious.

Olivia Wilde and Florence Pugh in Don’t Worry Darling. Photograph: Merrick Morton/AP

However, Don’t Worry Darling is essentially lacking of tension despite all the techniques. A portion of it is attributable to Wilde’s extensive plot spoilers in the press cycle. She has compared it to The Truman Show, revealed ahead of time that Chris Pine’s character is based on Jordan Peterson, admitted to Variety that she did extensive research for the movie on the “disenfranchised world of white men on the internet” via 4chan, and has even given Maggie Gyllenhaal a lesson on incels. The fact that the movie literally says nothing about feminism, the internet, or society other than to state that sexism is a helluva trip is part of the reason for this.

It makes me think of Promising Young Woman, a movie that was also celebrated for its feminism and radical anger but had a twist that doubled down on how awful some men can be. That movie, which received a wide release in late 2020, followed Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of a beautiful, white female lead who was singularly obsessed with exacting revenge for sexual assault. Both movies have stunning visuals and a female lead whose acting transcends the plot; however, when they first came out, they seemed out of date, as if they were reacting to the #MeToo movement’s early days in 2017, when the revelation of a few exceptionally bad men was a revelation in and of itself. Or, in the case of Don’t Worry Darling, following the 2018 Toronto van assault, in which a man radicalized online murdered 10 people, anxiety about internet-bred incels (involuntary celibates) increased.

I noted at the time that Promising Young Woman showed the boundaries of #MeToo rage on screen and that the movie’s insistence that everyone act to the worst of their abilities felt pointless. In a world divided into good and bad people, there is little room to examine the sluggishness of complicity or the damaging effects of trauma. This seems like a shallower, less expensive version of Don’t Worry Darling. Because men are evil, Misogyny is pervasive, and? There is a well-shot scene when Jack attacks Alice, but why? Given what we know about Alice’s captivity, it’s undoubtedly neither enjoyable nor in service of a bigger purpose.

In the end, I do support Don’t Worry Darling since it is a non-IP movie and a significant step forward for a female director. A huge screen is entertaining to watch. But like the Victory Project, it’s a hoax that promises one thing while really providing another.

Thanks to  at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here