A drama-filled Venice Film Festival debut had critics of “Don’t Worry Darling” very worried, darling — and for good reason.
On paper, “Don’t Worry Darling” has all the elements of a successful thriller, but it fails spectacularly in its execution. Despite its cliche premise, seen before in films such as 2019’s “Vivarium,” the star-studded cast had a great deal of potential. The film prospers in phenomenal production design and cinematography, but it ultimately falls flat as a result of poor pacing and director Olivia Wilde’s inability to commit to the risky choices required for a captivating mystery.
“Don’t Worry Darling” follows Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) and her husband Jack (Harry Styles), a seemingly perfect couple living in an experimental 1950s-esque community called “The Victory Project.” The film is heavily stylized and beautifully shot, but it’s clear that Wilde sacrificed character development and plot coherence in favor of a vintage Palm Springs aesthetic. The camera circles the characters like a hawk, creating a dizzying, hypnotic effect when combined with an eerie jazz score. But even the mesmerizing dream sequences get old after a while, and the audience is left to ponder the point of it all.
The dynamic of a troubled housewife versus her gaslighting husband has been replicated many times before, most recently in the 2019 film “Swallow.” When it comes to playing the role of a supposedly crazy woman who’s actually right about everything, Florence Pugh is no amateur. The film is most gripping in moments where she’s alone, testing the limits of her free will and exposing cracks in the perfect illusion of Victory.
Pugh carries the emotional core of the film on her back, while Styles struggles to pull his weight as nothing more than a crude caricature. At one point, he prances around on a stage like a goofy puppet, in a scene that looks more like a video from one of his sold-out concerts than a creepy cult-esque celebration. Meanwhile, Chris Pine and Gemma Chan are both tragically underutilized as Frank and Shelley, the mysterious gods of this suburban fantasy world.
One of the film’s shocking first scenes includes an intense, prolonged female orgasm. According to Wilde, she intentionally centered women’s pleasure in every sex scene — “Men don’t come in this film. Only women here!” she declared in an interview with Variety. However, in a film explicitly centered around male fantasy and patriarchal control, this choice makes absolutely no sense other than as a misguided excuse to proclaim the film as feminist.
Finally, after 90 minutes of buildup, one would expect that the film’s seemingly unrelated plot points would eventually fall into place, culminating in a delightfully unexpected “Aha!” moment for the audience. Instead, the ending feels rushed, and the final twist is ultimately unsatisfying as the puzzle pieces are clumsily jammed together, with some being entirely left out of the final picture. A line explaining Jack’s odd British accent is conspicuously thrown in, only drawing more attention to the fact that Styles likely could not believably play an American.
“Don’t Worry Darling” could have been a fascinating dive into the damage of online incel culture and its impacts on women, but instead it’s merely a vague, half-baked critique of the very concept of misogyny. Men can do horrible things to their wives. What else is new? It’s painfully obvious that Wilde is trying to make a name for herself as the next Jordan Peele in the world of feminist thrillers. Ironically, the only Black woman in the film is used as a disposable plot device.
In the end, the film’s high-concept presentation can’t make up for its lack of substance. “Don’t Worry Darling” is a shocking departure from Wilde’s directorial debut “Booksmart,” a modern coming-of-age classic — perhaps proving that Wilde should stick to what she knows best. However, “Don’t Worry Darling” is still pleasing to look at, and it’s a testament to Pugh’s ability to captivate audiences no matter the script she’s working with. If nothing else, it sure is a movie that feels like a movie.