Monday 10 October 2022

Film Review: Don't Worry Darling


It's the film that started a Twitter fracas or five; question is, is Olivia Wilde's sophomore effort actually more interesting offscreen than on it? Here are my thoughts on Don't Worry Darling.

It's sometime in the 1950s and housewife Alice (Florence Pugh) and her dapper husband Jack (Harry Styles) are living an idyllic domestic lifestyle in the remote desert community of Victory, alongside a collection of likeminded couples. 

During the day, Jack and all their male neighbours up and leave for work at a secret headquarters with Chris Pine's enigmatic founder Frank, while Alice mixes with her fellow homemakers, Bunny (Wilde), Shelley (Gemma Chan), Violet (Sydney Chandler) and Peg (Kate Berlant). And by night, there's mixology and merriment galore, as the close-knit cul-de-sac comes together to share a glass and get tipsy. 

It's a perfectly pleasant existence that on the margins is threatened by some odd, unexplained occurrences. Alice's friend Margaret (Kiki Layne) starts to exhibit strange behaviour before mysteriously disappearing, while talk about life outside the corporate commune is strictly off limits. Meanwhile, Alice is haunted by dizzying visions, confounding compulsions and a curious itch she just can't scratch.

As an original, star-studded film with sex and suspense aimed squarely at adults, Don't Won't Darling is a vanishingly rare item in the Hollywood landscape nowadays. That alone doesn't make it worth recommending, but it does hold some sway. And while it's not as tight and assured as Wilde's first film – 2019's coming-of-age comedy Booksmart – it does demonstrate her ability to skip into trickier genre territory, armed with a budget and bigger cast.

On the press tour, Wilde cited The Matrix and Inception as two films that inspired Don't Worry Darling – and without going into spoilers, that does track into the finished product. It's nowhere near as refined, gripping or exciting as either of those, but the core questions – where do all the men go during the day? What are they working on? Why can't the women leave the confines of their idyllic community – do come to a curious and compelling, if not totally satisfying, conclusion.  

I think the biggest issue with Don't Worry Darling is the protracted second act, and the rather harried third. Wilde and her screenwriter Katie Silberman spend too long on the 'huh?' and not enough time on the 'here's how'. By the time the finale rolls around, and all is revealed, we've actually spent too long mired in the middle, asking ourselves 'what is actually going on here'.

As you might have already guessed, the answer is rooted in toxic masculinity, outdated concepts of gender, the power of technology to corrupt, and how people – in this case, young men – can be twisted into thinking or acting a certain way by those with charisma, power and a platform. 

This isn't a bad underlying message, but I do think Wilde and Silberman don't quite stick the landing in conveying it. There's a version of this film where the third act isn't so rushed, where we learn a little bit more about how this all stitches together, that I think would result in a more thematically resonant story. 

What keeps you locked in is the dashing cast, particularly Pugh, Pine and Chan. Pugh is probably the best actress under 30 working today, so it should come as no surprise that she carries this film with ease. Her matchup with Styles is a curious one, in that Styles isn't necessarily bad, he's just not on her level.

The production design is impeccable, and Wilde's direction is creative and bold in places. Setting aside the behind-the-scenes drama for just a second, I think this film is Wilde still finding her feet, undergoing some teething issues, and going for broke. That it doesn't always work is a shame, but bonus points for effort – hopefully she gets another crack of the whip again in the near future.

The Verdict: 7/10

Not the massive misfire that most reviewers would have you believe, Don't Worry Darling is weirdly paced and light on answers, but still a solid sophomore effort for director Olivia Wilde and a really impressive showcase for Florence Pugh's lead actress credentials. 

Don't Worry Darling is in cinemas across Australia now.

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