Across Don’t Worry Darling’s captivatingly silly press tour, one quote has perhaps stood out above all others as a slice of summative bunkum – Harry Styles describing the film, his second after a more anonymous appearance in Dunkirk, as notable because it’s a movie that is a movie. Imagine my surprise to find out that he was exactly right – the best thing about Don’t Worry Darling is, ultimately, that it’s a movie. There is a very easily imaginable world where this twisty but empty story ended up on TV, stretching its deeply unsatisfying central mystery out to 10 (or more) episodes. Fret not, Don’t Worry Darling does give you all the answers within two hours – it’s just unlikely that you’ll like them very much.
As anyone who’s seen the trailers could have guessed, the ‘50s-style community at the heart of Don’t Worry Darling is harbouring some dark secrets, but their uncovering is the weakest part of the whole film, dragging down a story that was already unremarkable. It starts interestingly enough, as perfect housewife Alice (Florence Pugh) begins to suspect that the company town of Victory is not the idyll it claims to be and that maybe it, and her loving husband Jack (Styles), are traps from which she needs to escape.
As with any ‘mystery box’ story, it’s in the guessing that the most fun is to be had. The men of the town all work vague and technical jobs at a secretive site in the middle of a desert a few miles out of town, inexplicable earthquakes rock the neighbourhood, and a plane crash seems to go entirely unnoticed by everyone but Alice. It could be a potent set-up, and exploring the world of Victory is fun at first – Wilde handles the step up in terms of scale and budget from Booksmart with great aplomb – but don’t try too hard to piece everything together; the mostly leaden script from Katie Silberman sure doesn’t.
As we barrel towards the conclusion, reveals start flooding in, almost all of which either; don’t make sense, simply raise more questions, or fail to resolve earlier mysteries. For a film with a more richly built world, this feeble ending would still detract but might not be as fatal – Don’t Worry Darling is built from the ground up as a conspiracy to solve and as an attempt to reckon with both the permanent and more trend-based faces of misogyny, and it fails to do so with any sort of verve.
Though Wilde’s stylistic sensibilities work to great effect here – the visuals are great, with precision and ambition in the costuming, production design, and location work, while the urgent and anxious score is a highlight – the ability to command great performances that she had in Booksmart seems to have vanished. Styles, thanks mostly to his sheer celebrity status, is the easy target here, and he’s not very good (getting rid of Shia LaBeouf was both a moral and practical necessity, but someone like Evan Peters could have brought far more of the requisite danger to the role), but he’s far from the worst offender.
The vast majority of the ensemble give feeble performances, from Wilde herself as Alice’s prickly best friend bunny to Nick Kroll, miscast as a fervent true believer in the shadowy Victory project, while Gemma Chan is simply awful as Shelley, the imperious wife of Victory’s founder / cult-like leader Frank. Frank is played by Chris Pine, who you might assume to be a saving grace, but Pine mostly looks bored, and his initially pivotal role fades, counterintuitively, into the background as the plot progresses.
It’s up to Pugh, then, to save the film from itself and, to no great surprise, she almost manages it as a woman fighting back against industrial-grade misogyny, gaslighting, and male entitlement. It’s another in a long line of great performances from one the best young actors working today – not quite on a par with her very best work in, say, Lady Macbeth or Little Women but still a true movie star display, the only consistently convincing element in the entire film.
Both as a directorial follow-up to the magical Booksmart and as a big-budget studio thriller not based on any sort of existing IP, I went into Don’t Worry Darling with high hopes and good will, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a more purely disappointing film so far this year. In its stylish emptiness, wasted potential, nonsensical ending, and shallow analyses of sexism, the film it called to my mind most was Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, another woeful let-down. To any directors who still have the clout to get ambitious, original stuff made; films like this are few and far between, let’s at least make them good when they are allowed out of the gates.