Thriller chooses style over substance
Set design, location work outshine screenplay
Hot off its Venice International Film Festival premiere this month, Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial effort Don’t Worry Darling lands in theaters with a whole mess of PR in tow.
Reports of casting shake-ups and alleged on-set conflicts painted the picture of a troubled production before a disjointed press circuit further exacerbated the optics surrounding the film. It’s to the movie’s credit that all of this baggage begins to evaporate quite quickly, like a dream upon waking, after the lights dim and the projector begins to flicker. Unfortunately, the end result still isn’t good enough to overcome all the expectations most audiences will have going into the theater, nor is it bad enough for the hate-watching crowds to get their kicks either.
Set in an idyllic community deeply steeped in mid-century architecture and fashion, Don’t Worry Darling is told through the eyes of Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh), a stay-at-home wife who dutifully sees her engineer husband, Jack (Harry Styles), off every morning. She spends her days rigorously cleaning the house and sharing a midday martini with next-door neighbor Bunny (Olivia Wilde) before preparing a lavish dinner just in time for Jack’s arrival home. Alice’s Utopian life in the town of Victory starts to fall apart when her friend Margaret (KiKi Layne) begins to press Frank (Chris Pine), the founder of the all-encompassing Victory Project, for details around the enigmatic operation. After seeing a plane crash in the desert one day, Alice makes a trip to investigate the wreckage, but instead finds Victory Headquarters, causing her to ask questions similar to the ones Margaret asked before suffering an “accident.”
Anyone who has seen the trailer, which played ad nauseam in theaters this summer, won’t be surprised that some of the film’s stronger points are its surface-level delights. The set design, location work, and production design are absolutely first-rate, meticulously evoking a 1950s postcard-prepped Palm Springs paradise that is exquisitely rendered at every turn. The masterful cinematographer Matthew Libatique, whose work on Black Swan underscores the ballet classes that Alice takes in this film, beautifully rendering these picturesque settings while implying a darkness under the surface. Juxtaposing the carefree doo-wop and jazz hits on the soundtrack, John Powell’s haunting music score blends chopped-up breaths and grimy synths to perpetually chilling effect.
It’s all fantastic window dressing, but the script dooms itself by putting all its eggs in the basket dedicated to the central mystery concerning what is really happening at Victory. Wilde occasionally drops paltry breadcrumbs leading to the late third-act development, but she spends too much time spinning her wheels with one psychological horror trope after another. Without getting into details that would constitute spoilers, the reveal feels cobbled together from other movies and TV series that have explored its implications and ramifications more thoroughly and intelligently. Wilde adds some layers of gender politics and social commentary that feel fresh and germane to the story, but not enough to triumph over the nagging questions that theatergoers will have when the credits roll.
The stacked ensemble cast, which also includes Gemma Chan and Nick Kroll, does everything they can to bring this wonderland to life. Translating the terrors of her Midsommar character into a somewhat similar scenario, Pugh is reliably outstanding at bringing us into the shattered psyche of a woman at odds with the perfidious paradise around her. Pine is also excellent as a confident and charismatic authority figure who conjures platitudes about progress and positivity so seductively that they start to sound profound in no time. Styles is fine conveying what is admittedly a pretty bland character, but based on the strength of his latest album, I hope he makes music a bigger priority than acting from here on.
Don’t Worry Darling has plenty going for it, but ultimately comes undone by a backloaded screenplay that favors surprises over subtlety.
New movies coming this week
Opening in theaters is Bros, a romantic comedy starring Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane about a New York museum curator with commitment issues and insecurities about his homosexuality who attempts a relationship with a workaholic lawyer.
Streaming on Disney+ is Hocus Pocus 2, a supernatural comedy starring Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker bringing back the Sanderson sisters 29 years after the events of the first film as they face off against a new trio of high school students.
Premiering on Netflix on Sept. 28 is Blonde, a historical drama starring Ana de Armas and Adrien Brody which tells a fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe from her tragic childhood to her meteoric rise to fame and her untimely death at the age of 36.