Dir: Olivia Wilde. Starring: Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll, Kate Berlant. 122 mins
There has long been a sense of morbid anticipation around Don’t Worry Darling, with Olivia Wilde’s sci-fi thriller generating large amounts of negative buzz in the run-up to its release. Its star Florence Pugh appeared to distance herself from the project amid rumours of a falling out between herself and Wilde. Shia LaBeouf disputed Wilde’s claims that he was fired from the production and released a video of the director that seemingly proved his story. Gossip columnists have also been in a frenzy about Wilde’s relationship with pop idol Harry Styles, who took over LaBeouf’s role. And that’s before we even got to “Spitgate” – or a viral, rapidly disputed clip which appeared to show Styles spitting on co-star Chris Pine at the movie’s Venice Film Festival premiere earlier this month. Of course he didn’t – and both parties denied such a thing had occurred – but it wasn’t surprising that people believed he did, considering the factual drama surrounding the film.
Ultimately, Don’t Worry Darling isn’t the disaster that some predicted – but it is a messy, convoluted affair with some very contrived plotting. Styles gives a surprisingly dull and low-wattage performance as Jack. To be fair, he is playing a very dull character, a kind of Stepford husband. Jack lives with his wife Alice (Pugh) in a gleaming, very affluent 1950s community beside the desert, working alongside lots of other husbands who look and behave exactly as he does. The men are all employees of The Victory Project, a shadowy scheme headed by Frank (Pine) that aspires to “change the world”. Frank is a svelte but sinister guru with voyeuristic tendencies who demands complete obedience. Wilde plays Bunny, Alice’s glamorous neighbour and best friend.
While the men in their identical suits drive off to work, the women stay at home. They mind the kids (if they have them), do the hoovering and cooking, and take dance lessons. Everything in their consumer paradise feels synthetic. There is lots of drinking and sex but even this lacks heart. One scene sees Jack go down on Alice the moment he gets home from work; it’s reminiscent of the famously steamy encounter between Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange on the kitchen table in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Here, though, the temperature hardly rises. Styles lacks charisma. Wilde includes a scene in which his character dances on stage after winning an “employee of the month”-style award but he is far less arresting than burlesque veteran Dita Von Teese, who has a cameo performing an extravagant striptease. Jack is a one-dimensional figure, and the One Direction star fails to give him any hidden depth. Pugh is easily the film’s most vivid and compelling personality. She plays Alice in such fiery fashion that most other characters seem robotic by comparison.
The screenplay by Katie Silberman (who co-wrote Wilde’s excellent debut feature Booksmart) seems inspired in equal measure by Brave New World and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It possesses some creepy, intriguing elements and Wilde throws in spectacular visual flourishes, including Busby Berkeley-like chorus routines and nightmare sequences in which Alice suspects she really is losing her mind as her peers would have her believe.
Don’t Worry Darling is beautifully shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (best known for his work on Darren Aronofsky’s films, including the director’s current Venice contender The Whale). It has immaculate production and costume design. Beneath its polished, very stylish outer sheen, though, it’s as hollow as the lives of its pampered but empty-headed protagonists. You can understand easily enough why Alice is so desperate to get out of the community – and perhaps why certain cast members have been so wary about endorsing the movie itself.
In the Utopian, misogynistic, Mad Men-like world that Silberman and Wilde have conjured, the women’s roles are as wives and mothers. They don’t work. And if they express any dissatisfaction with their lives, they’re ostracised, treated as if they’re mentally unstable, pumped full of pills and given shock treatment. They’re all living in a gilded cage, forbidden from expressing independent opinions or even venturing too far from their own front doors. Pugh’s Alice is far too single-minded to put up with all these strictures. When she thinks she has seen a plane crashing in the mountains, she sets off across the desert to offer help. This is when her troubles start. Friends turn against her. She is labelled a troublemaker who asks too many questions. But what starts as a dystopian psychological thriller turns briefly (and absurdly) into a Fast and Furious-style chase movie in its latter scenes. The plot also has a very strange framing device, which may leave viewers scratching their heads.
‘Don’t Worry Darling’ is in cinemas from 23 September
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