The press tour for Olivia Wilde’s latest film, the ever-infamous Don’t Worry Darling, proved to be more memorable than the film itself. The film gained notoriety not because of its subject matter but because of its cast’s illicit affairs, custody battles, and glittery body suits. (Well, maybe not exactly because of the body suits, but because of the man who wore them on stage every night at his NYC concert residency.) There was also the rumor of a salacious fallout between Wilde and her star lead. And everyone remembers the night of the Venice Film Festival and the endless camera angles of the alleged spit take from Harry Styles onto an unsuspecting Chris Pine’s lap. (Turns out, there was no spit. Allegedly.)
All joking aside, I found myself waiting for the dust to settle with this one. There was already so much outside influence when the film hit theatres that I didn’t feel ready to give it a fair shot. So, I waited until HBO Max released Don’t Worry Darling (also starring Florence Pugh!) to see if the film could transcend the mess. Unfortunately, all of the extracurricular fun couldn’t save the actual film from the lukewarm reviews. It sure couldn’t save Don’t Worry Darling from clunky editing and even more confusing storylines and characterizations.
Don’t Worry Darling starts off convincingly enough. Set in the desert of fictional Victory, California, to give it that polished 1950s suburbia vibe, the film depicts the life of married couple Jack (Styles) and Alice (Pugh). Slowly, we discover reveal signs that not everything is what it seems at the Victory Project, the name that cult leader Frank (Chris Pine) gives to the mysterious employer around which this company town revolves. Turns out, the Victory Project is a utopian simulation created by online white male incels to trap the women in their lives (most of the time against their own will, as is the case for Alice) in a mid-century hegemony-fantasy that serves only them.
While the premise might seemingly offer much to dissect, Don’t Worry Darling falls short thanks to a number of problems of its own making. First, the plot leaves too many loose ends that are by no means intentional. This film is no David Lynch-ian tale of a small town’s dark underbelly. There’s also the issue of Wilde’s technical direction, which produces some genuinely stunning images – but without an emotional foundation, they’re nothing more than shallow opulence. Visually stunning but emotionally stunted, Don’t Worry Darling only dangles a carrot of commentary for its viewers. By the time the film is over, we’re just standing in the middle of the California desert, dehydrated and tired.
We follow Alice on a journey that leads us nowhere. She finds out her boyfriend, Jack, kidnapped her physical body so he could hold her mind prisoner in his homogenetic fantasy. While Pugh’s performance incinerates the screen every time she appears, Alice is still a passive onlooker unable to eclipse the screenplay’s shortcomings. Things happen at Alice; she never, even in her struggle for the truth, becomes an active participant in the narrative. And then, halfway through the film, the narrative itself gives up in favor of a handful of twists and turns that distract from the gaping plotholes. What was the airplane about? What happened to Margaret (Kiki Layne) and her kid out in the desert? Who were Frank and Shelley (Gemma Chan) outside of the virtual reality known as the Victory Project? What kind of world-building forgets the very rules of its own world?
The film’s most egregious flaw is its blatant erasure of Kiki Layne’s character Margaret. Very quickly, Margaret becomes the Victory Project’s outcast. After losing her son in the desert, she wanders the town aimlessly until committing suicide in front of Alice. It’s not Margaret’s death that makes this all the more tragic as much as it is the unanswered questions surrounding and underdevelopment of her character. Margaret triggers Alice’s “revelation” that the Victory Project isn’t what it seems; but, later on, she isn’t even become an afterthought. Margaret remains shrouded in mystery and wasted potential, ultimately becoming even more passive than Alice.
There’s also the matter of Layne being the only black woman in the cast. Given this, Margaret’s unresolved fate feels like the most ironic of metaphors for the entire movement of white feminism that runs rampant online. Because at the end of the day, that’s what Don’t Worry Darling is: empty and performative, a white woman’s fantasy of feminism. So it’s actually quite fitting that the film actually emphasizes the lives and complexities of its male characters. That’s not to say that every film directed by a woman – especially a white woman – has to serve a specific political agenda. But all art is political. And Olivia Wilde has positioned herself as a beacon and champion of female progress in the film industry. Yet her proclamations of change ring hollow in this film.
From its complete lack of interest in touching on racial intersectionality or the 1950’s homogeneity that makes the Victory Project so appealing to men like Jack to any real interest in dissecting femininity, Don’t Worry Darling‘s attempt at critique falls flat. Painfully so. Alice becomes a side character in her own story to make way for Wilde’s more one-dimensional ideas of what women want. Like sex, which in the film becomes a tool for appeasing and distracting Alice, and not the empowerment that Wilde touted during the three-ring press tour. Or children, whose entire existence is off-handed comments and one tragic revelation from Bunny (played by Wilde) who says that she can still be with them in the Victory Project (thus implying that they died in her “real” life).
A generous reading might call Don’t Worry Darling an unfinished product. After watching, I felt as though I had discovered my regular Coke was actually diet. Maybe it was just the bitter aftertaste. Having said that, though, the film is not entirely unsalvageable. Had Wilde set this as a limited series, she might have benefited from the extended narrative frame; It would have given her room to flesh out several characters. Other than that hypothetical, all Don’t Worry Darling leaves us with is some pretty imagery.