Florence Pugh shines in Don’t Worry Darling, a film that favours message over storytelling but that’s still an enjoyable, gripping watch.
Life is great in Victory Town, especially for newlyweds Alice (Florence Pugh, of Little Women and Black Widow) and Jack (Harry Styles, of Dunkirk), who spend most of their free time reveling in each other’s company. Of course, Jack has to go to work and Alice is in charge of house chores, but there’s also a lot of cocktail drinking, expensive cars to be driven, luxurious homes to be enjoyed and sex to be had in this idyllic 1950s company town. So who cares if the young Jack can’t say a word about the top-secret project he’s working on, and if random earthquakes and other strange occurrences take place, at times, when just getting to be part of this visionary community is the reward?
Complete, unquestioning commitment is what Victory’s founder and CEO/motivational life coach Frank (Chris Pine, of Wonder Woman) asks the residents of a town where wives are not only not allowed to get close to its Headquarters (since they don’t work there) but also discouraged from questioning their husbands about their jobs. Alice and Jack might not have many friends — among which are the sophisticated Bunny (Olivia Wilde, also the film’s director), the pregnant Peg (Kate Berlant, of Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood) and their respective husbands, but life in Victory Town is carefree and optimistic, and everyone is grateful to Frank and his wife Shelley (Gemma Chan, of Eternals) for the idyllic existence they lead.
Well, perhaps not everyone. A young woman named Margaret (KiKi Layne, of If Beale Street Could Talk), who recently suffered a nervous breakdown and has been kept at a distance from the other wives ever since, keeps trying to warn her former friends that something strange is going on, and that things in Victory Town aren’t what they seem. Alice is puzzled by her behaviour, and that makes her want to do the one thing she isn’t allowed to do — ask questions.
And so, Alice starts to explore the town, and the closer she gets to finding an answer the more she remembers memories that aren’t her own and uncovers unlikely coincidences. Needless to say, Alice encounters resistance, not only from the town’s disquieting CEO but also from her friends and husband. This makes her become even more outspoken about her findings, which leads to even more confusion… Until the truth is finally revealed, and chaos ensues.
There’s a big twist in Don’t Worry Darling that you’ll either appreciate or dislike, depending on what you expected the film to be. In my opinion, the moment when we find out what exactly is going on in Victory Town is also when the film suddenly becomes much more intriguing and gripping. For half its runtime, I was convinced that it was going to follow the same direction of many other dystopian/sci-fi stories, some more successful than others, from crowdpleasers like The Island, The Hunger Games and the Divergent trilogy to recent releases like The Town of the Headcounts and even Spiderhead: in all of these movies, groups of people that have something in common eventually come to realise that they’re being controlled by an authority and eventually manage to escape the utopian world in which they’ve been confined. But Don’t Worry Darling ‘s twist is something you absolutely won’t expect, and that’s the real strength of the movie.
When truth hits you and you suddenly realise you’ve been misjudging the entire situation, Don’t Worry Darling becomes a completely different kind of film, and, though we never lose focus from our resourceful protagonist, we also start looking back at previous moments, and see Victory Town and its inhabitants for what they truly are. Director Olivia Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman (Booksmart), who took inspiration from a story by Carey Van Dyke & Shane Van Dyke (Chernobyl Diaries), also imbue the film with everpresent social commentary, especially when it comes to gender biases, toxic masculinity, and women’s role in society.
Don’t Worry Darling is ultimately a film about a woman who tries her best to free herself from a reality controlled by whiny, narcissistic men who’d rather take the easy way out than have a conversation and face their issues. There’s very little hope left in Wilde’s world, a place where suspicion always lingers, no one is to be trusted, and solidarity is hard to find, as even fellow women would seem to have become just as ruthless and egotistical as the men, perhaps as a means to survive.
The film’s buildup of tension is excellent, and cinematography (Black Swan‘s Matthew Libatique), sound design (Jason Bourne‘s John Powell), and editing (The Lost Daughter‘s Alfonso Gonçalves) go hand in hand to craft a truly gripping watch that will have you hooked from beginning to end, not only for the desire to understand its secrets but also for the sheer pleasure of being immersed in that world.
The real standout of the movie is undoubtedly Florence Pugh, whose performance carries the entire film regardless of whether she’s running for her life or enjoying the idyllic Victory existence. The same can’t be said of Harry Styles, whose scenes are always enjoyable but whose lack of acting experience sometimes makes for sequences that are meme-worthy rather than tension-filled. Chris Pine is exquisitely disquieting, particularly during a dinner scene with the rest of the cast, and, though Olivia Wilde, KiKi Layne and Gemma Chan are not as present in the film, the few scenes they have are bound to make an impact on the audience.
There is a lot to like in Don’t Worry Darling, but there’s also a major flaw that prevents it from being the truly memorable watch it could have been. Unfortunately, it often feels like the creatives behind the movie were so fixated on conveying a specific message that they developed the film around it, rather than focusing on telling a story that worked. Instead, we get a compelling enough film that often forgets about loose threads, asks us to believe things “just because,” introduces new elements at the very last minute, and tries way too hard to cram more and more themes into the narrative, making it lose authenticity as a result. Not only that, but, when it comes to film endings, there’s a thin line between clever ones that are open to interpretation and ones that simply suffer from lazy writing — driven by the writers’ need to have the film end in some way, and the film verges more onto the latter.
Don’t Worry Darling is not a perfect film, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it. Watch it for Florence Pugh’s performance and for a story that will frustrate you at times but that will always have you hooked nonetheless.
Don’t Worry Darling premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival on September 5, 2022 and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.