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With likeable coming-of-age comedy Booksmart already under her belt, actress and director Olivia Wilde’s newest offering should have left audiences intrigued to see what came next. Instead, thanks to a mixture of awkward interviews, reports of tension between cast members and some truly meme-worthy moments (See: “My favourite thing about the movie is, like, it feels like a movie” – Harry Styles), Don’t Worry Darling seemed doomed to fail from the start.
Despite all the drama, audiences may be surprised to find that the stylish, tension-filled piece of cinema actually makes for an enjoyable couple of hours. Firstly, the film is beautiful to look at. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who has worked on some of Darren Aronofsky’s best works including Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, ensures it is a sensory delight from start to finish. Each morning in their picturesque little cul-de-sac, wives come out of their identical houses to wave farewell to their identically-dressed husbands as they drive off to work at exactly the same time. The eerie uniformity and vibrant use of colour is very reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands – another nightmarish take on the American Dream from the mind of Tim Burton.
It should also come as no great shock that, as usual, Florence Pugh’s performance is top notch. Pugh plays Alice Chambers, one of the wives of the men working in the mysterious “Victory Project”. This small group of couples and their children live in a planned-community in a remote part of a California desert in what appears to be the late 1950’s. Over the course of the film, it quickly becomes apparent that all is not as it seems, but Pugh succeeds in delivering a nuanced performance amid some heavy-handed symbolism. A lesser actress might have put on a detached, smiling-through-the-pain, Mad Men’s Betty Draper routine. Instead Pugh’s performance is buzzing with life and driven by a desperate, defiant spark that makes her character captivating to watch. Undoubtedly, the film’s lead elevates the entire piece and makes it worth the watch.
Meanwhile, Chris Pine is surprisingly believable in his charismatic cult leader role – although admittedly, his character is a fairly one-dimensional villain. While he does a fine job of plastering on a sinister smile, some of the best scenes in the film are born out of his interactions with Pugh’s character. The chemistry between the pair is electric and, in one particular scene, I was amazed she didn’t fly across the dinner table at him with a kitchen knife in hand.
One of the biggest question marks hanging over the film is related to Harry Styles’ acting ability. Many assumed his performance would be a total car crash, but I thought it was actually perfectly adequate during the film’s first half. The popstar is passable in the, again, fairly one-dimensional role of a wide-eyed, ambitious young businessman and devoted husband. Unfortunately, he does fall short as the film reached its emotional climax, where more intensity is required from him than he is able to give – especially opposite a talent like Pugh. Nevertheless, it is equally difficult to envision original casting pick Shia LaBeouf in his place as the affable, easy-to-manipulate young employee.
Don’t Worry Darling’s plot will undoubtedly prove divisive with audiences, as it all hinges on one big twist. Some viewers might be irritated by the use of such a plot device. However, I felt the twist worked, as its purpose was to deliver the film’s central message. That said, after the twist has been revealed, the pacing becomes rushed as the film attempts to cram in a plausible explanation at lightning speed in the final act. And, even despite the big reveal, we’re still left with a million more questions about the Victory Project and what it all means.
The first half of the film is actually where the mystery is at its most interesting, as Pugh’s jarring flashbacks and strange hallucinations hint at something more sinister lying beneath the glossy surface of their seemingly-perfect community. Throughout the movie, you get the sense that these women are suffocating. This is exemplified in one of its more disturbing scenes, which sees Pugh’s character get the overwhelming urge to asphyxiate herself with cling film whilst preparing food in the kitchen. Even the scenes when the character is happy make you want to scream. Early on, we see Alice relentlessly scrubbing every surface of the house before spending hours cooking an elaborate dinner and setting the dining room table. When her husband (Styles) comes home from work, he decides to “treat his woman” to some steamy antics on said table, knocking off the carefully-prepared feast in the process.
Despite the film’s mid-20th century setting, there is a scathing piece of social commentary at its centre reminding us that gender inequality is an ever-present issue. The idea that men and women must make different sacrifices and that they are entitled to different rewards. The idea that one light must be dimmed in order for another to shine. In this post-Trump era of incel culture and the growing popularity of online misogynists like Andrew Tate, it sometimes feels like a stone’s throw away.
Ultimately, Don’t Worry Darling feels as though it is dancing on the precipice of something deeper and, while it pushes further and further towards a more profound revelation, Wilde never peels back that extra layer to show the true ugliness beneath. A comparison can be made here to Wilde’s debut film Booksmart – a fantastic film that suffers from one similar flaw. In the film’s climax, where high school best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) get into a huge fight at a party, Wilde again chooses to drown out their words with music rather than leave such ugliness exposed.
Two movies and several PR nightmares later, Wilde has proven herself to be a talented filmmaker – but while she continues to pull herself back, she has yet to strike gold. Nevertheless, Roland Barthes once wrote that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”. In that same spirit, is it really fair that this film might be judged as mere Hollywood fodder? Surely, we the audience should endeavour to separate the art from the artist. Two thoughts to leave you with: this film was not a disaster; it was definitely a movie.
Express.co.uk were given the opportunity to attend the premiere screening of Don’t Worry Darling at the newly-launched Everyman Cinema in Egham, Surrey.
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