Movie Review: ‘Don’t Worry Darling’
Director: Olivia Wilde
Cast: Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Chris Pine
Plot: Alice and Jack live an idyllic live in the desert community and company town of Victory during the 1950s. Initially content with the cycle of cooking, cleaning and providing a charmed household for Jack, Alice is disturbed by unsettling visions and strange occurances.
Review: Amid the media nonsense surrounding the production and release of Don’t Worry Darling, director Olivia Wilde spoke about the sex-positive attitude of the film, noting the female perspective on some of the intimate scenes. This is inherently a fine idea and it addresses a representation gap in mainstream cinema. The notion of the ‘male gaze’ has long been discussed in relation to cinema generally only depicting a male perspective on women and sexuality. The alternative being presented in a wide, big name release becoming newsworthy in 2022 is somewhat damning, and Don’t Worry Darling could stand as a strong example of this perspective being brought to the fore.
…you get to the end of the movie and there’s a big, spoilery reveal. The reality as Alice (Pugh) knew it is broken down, and the truth of Victory is discovered. Without getting heavily into the details, the Stepford-esque community is something of an illusion and Alice is a prisoner here with no agency over her life and marriage, brainwashed into accepting what she is presented with. Now go back and look at what the director said. Compare that with what we’ve said about the reveal. They don’t work well together – a movie where a woman is kept in a relationship against her will, but in a sex positive light. It feels as though Wilde has come into this project with some clear ideas for some aspects of the story and themes, but never stepped back and looked at how it all fits together.
At this point we’re going to get into the story, and getting less vague with the spoilers. That’s the warning.
Alice and Jack (Styles) have a happy life together, with Alice fulfilled with her societal role as homemaker. Even without plans for a family, dedicating herself to her husband while he works long shifts at the mysterious Headquarters makes her content. Whilst riding the trolley car Alice sees a crashing prop plane land in the desert that surrounds their small town, and feels compelled to brave the expanse to provide help. Searching for the plane leads Alice to the Headquarters, prompting disturbing hallucinations. Waking up in bed at home, Alice begins to notice more unusual things around the community, in particular a friend who was beginning to act manic and even attempts suicide.
These claims are quickly dismissed, with the reported suicide being explained away as a misunderstanding of what was seen. Victory is under the thrall of Frank, a charismatic figure who employs the men in the town and founded the community as an idealised place to live. Frank’s philosophies are oft repeated by the men of Victory, and he holds a powerful sway over everyone including forbidding any discussion of what happens at the ‘Headquarters’. When pushing back against the reality she is presented with, Alice discovers that she is held captive in a digital simulation by Jack, who has bought into Frank’s ideology and wants a return to ‘traditional’ gender roles. The truth is that Jack is unemployed and an increasing shut-in, feeling emasculated by his girlfriend Alice who supports him working as a surgeon, and an avid follower of Frank’s ideas expressed through a podcast or something similar.
An update on the concepts presented in The Stepford Wives is always welcome, especially in the current climate. The character of Frank is openly based on real-world figure Jordan Peterson, who espouses similar ideas to dedicated followers, giving this premise a genuine reason to be discussion. It’s just a shame that these updates on the story manage to mangle it to such a degree. Frank Oz’s 2004 effort couldn’t decide if the women were being replaced with robots or not, and tried to do both. Don’t Worry Darling, on the other hand, feels as though the big twist may have been…something else. A different twist not involving the virtual reality aspect makes more sense.
Take, for example, the crashing plane. This is an essential part of the story, as it leads Alice to investigate the Headquarters and break the rules of the town by going into the desert. It’s even in the middle of some poster designs. But it is later revealed that this is a simulation controlled by the men of the town to represent their idealised worldview. Their leader, Frank, frequently talks about the importance of control, and control being the path forward to a brighter future. If this is a simulation, and the people running it fervently believe in strict control, then we’re left wondering where the hell this crashing plane came from. It makes no sense for this event to have been included in the perfectly controlled world, and the way the NPC characters respond suggests that this is not meant to happen. Perhaps the reveal would be that whilst Victory exists in a version of the 1950s, the modern world is just beyond the desert. Then an unexplained plane is easily hand waved as an unplanned incursion.
The virtually reality aspect of the reveal becomes more silly the longer you think about it. Jack traps Alice in a technological rig in their apartment. As far as we know, she’s just vanished off the face of the planet while Jack continues to turn up at his minimum wage job every day before plugging himself back in. None of her family, friends or co-workers seem to have raised an alarm, and we don’t know how long this has been happening. They eat lavish meals in Victory, including getting drunk, but they must be getting fed in the real world as well. Does this idealised perfect world for Jack involve him cleaning out a bedpan twice a day? The big answer in this story leaves us more confused than ever.
There’s smaller details that have larger implications as well. During the violent and quick paced final act, Alice’s neighbour Bunny (Wilde) tells her that when a man dies in the simulation, they die in real life. We don’t recall what happened immediately after this, because we were confused about this wording. Is it only the men who can die in the real world through the simulation? Why? If anyone can die, just say that. There are many moments of the movie where we’re expected to be confused, but there’s just as many unintentionally befuddling moments.
We like the premise, and love some of these actors. Florence Pugh is, again, fantastic and one of the most natural young leading ladies cinema has had in this generation. There’s a rich aesthetic, even if some of the more artistic hallucinations feel recycled from other recent films. Unfortunately the lack of foresight and overall vision in constructing the story leaves it floundering.
Rating: FOUR out of TEN