Like many this weekend, I entered a screening of “Don’t Worry Darling” with a bizarre set of prior knowledge about the film. Its label as a “feminist thriller” was all I knew of the plot, and Harry Styles’ now infamous “Spitgate” incident was only a drop in the sea of drama that has flooded my social media feed for weeks. With such rampant dishonesty and sensationalism dominating the narrative of the film’s production, could it ever successfully become what its creator envisioned?
“Don’t Worry Darling” is actress-director Olivia Wilde’s second full-length directorial endeavor, after “Booksmart.” It stars Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine, Gemma Chan and Wilde herself as residents of a desert paradise town called “Victory.” Opening in theaters on Friday, the film has already received viral attention for the near-endless drama surrounding its cast, especially concerning rumors of Wilde’s infidelity with Styles, Wilde’s firing of Shia Labeouf and the aforementioned “Spitgate.”
Taken with context of its production, I think “Don’t Worry Darling” poignantly disenchants Hollywood as a fairy-tale concept. But as a work of cinema, it gets as many things right as it does wrong.
For one, the film’s apparent inspirations — “The Stepford Wives,” “Get Out” and maybe even “Marriage Story” — point toward a plague of unoriginality that has gripped the industry since 2020. With uninspired remakes, disappointing sequels and streaming services abound, the movie theater is more barren than it has ever been.
Sensationalism is also vital to the discussion surrounding “Don’t Worry Darling.” As revealed by the film’s endless press coverage, we live in a space where quick, dubious nuggets of drama overshadow nearly all other types of information. Much of the tabloid filler that followed the initial news has since been debunked, but this film (and its cast) will never escape its battered reputation.
To judge its merits as a piece of cinema, however, we need to start with a brief, spoiler-free summary. Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Styles) live their dream lives in ’50s-era Victory alongside other happy couples. Each day, the men leave to work for Frank (Pine), a mysterious and handsome visionary-slash-CEO, while the women cook, clean, socialize and attend ballet sessions with Shelley (Chan), Frank’s wife. When Alice notices strange occurrences in Victory, including the unsettling behavior of her friend Margaret (Kiki Layne), she begins a series of events that will unravel the truth behind the town and Frank’s Victory Project.
I was disappointed to find “Don’t Worry Darling’s” story disjunct and its messaging confused. In the realm of unnerving thrillers with relevant political commentary and shocking twists, the film is utterly outmatched by 2019’s “Parasite” and 2017’s “Get Out” (a comparison that warrants its own article). Pacing seems to be the key to unlocking the potential of this genre, but “Don’t Worry Darling” fails to build tension, instead hammering the viewer early with intrigue. Obvious and ominous musical cues are a significant culprit here, refusing to save any crescendo. The twist revelation is ultimately unsatisfying and predictable. (I even caught a not-so-subtle easter egg in the first 15 minutes that revealed most of the story).
Some characters are written poorly. The most notable for me were Frank, whose dialogue botched an attempt at cleverness, and Shelley, whose motivations and role are unclear even by the end of the movie. Chan is frankly underused, given maybe five lines total in as many scenes.
To its credit, “Don’t Worry Darling” has at least one productive feminist theme. That such an obviously backslid world, where women exist only to serve their husbands, could persist without question is powerful. If intentional, this lack of subtlety in storytelling demonstrates the brazenness of patriarchal gaslighting. This sort of conclusion is difficult to extract as an average audience member, though. It’s much easier to be drawn to its absurd imagery, told-not-shown messages and anti-feminist production stories.
Despite these flaws, most of the film’s production elements — cinematography, lighting, set design, costuming, hair and makeup — are strikingly convincing. There were a few shots where the racking focus seemed awkward, but they stand mostly as an exception to Director of Photography Matthew Libatique’s strong work. The ’50s aesthetic settles nicely into colorful sundresses and immaculate suits, lazy desert oases and consumerist-ridden malls. Even Alice’s hair helps to tell the story, maintaining a rough approximation of her mental state at any given time.
The performances, too, are convincing. I am firmly on the Florence Pugh bandwagon: her nonverbal reactions give effortless continuity to her character, showing the audience what real talent looks like. Styles, who has received criticism for his acting, is actually suitable for his role, in my opinion. To be sure, Jack is not written as complexly as Alice, nor does he require as much finesse to bring to life. Even though Styles’ ceiling seems to be far below Pugh’s, he delivers on what Jack should be: quiet, horny, aloof and unsettling.
As a last thought: in too many cases, intentions of filmmakers are blurred against objective criticisms, resulting in scrutiny over what might be overlooked in other films. Much of the rhetoric critiquing this film — especially that of the sex scenes — demonstrates a dismaying and all-too-familiar readiness to bash feminist and female-led art. While this phenomenon is not new, the judgment of “Don’t Worry Darling” seems all too inevitable. The film is not great, maybe not even good; but it certainly doesn’t deserve to be dumped upon like it has. It feels like a “go-to-the-theater” film, but not a “go-back-to-the-theater” film, as it so clearly sees itself.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.