“Don’t Worry Darling” is a film whose poor reputation precedes it. It’s going to be remembered not for anything that happens in the film, but for being the source of news stories about animosity between various players in its production. But I can look beyond all the gossip and behind-the-scenes drama and focus on what’s on screen. Unfortunately, what’s on screen is a movie that had no business making as much money as it did this past weekend.
The film takes place in a desert-based housing development in an unknown location at an unknown time, though everything about it suggests the 1950’s or 60’s. Alice (Florence Pugh) is a housewife who devotes herself to doting over her house, her cooking duties, and of course her husband Jack (Harry Styles). He spends his days at a secretive workplace run by community leader Frank (Chris Pine) while she cooks, cleans, shops, goes to dancing lessons, and socializes with other wives like Bunny (Olivia Wilde, also the film’s director). It’s a life of domestic bliss that seems too good to be true, which of course means it won’t be long before it descends into chaos.
Things started going off the rails a few months before we join the story, when neighbor Margaret (Kiki Layne) lost her child in the desert and started spouting conspiracy theories about what the men in the town do all day. Because what she says might be an inconvenience, Alice and the rest of the community tune her out. But then one day Alice witnesses a plane crash near a restricted facility and violates the community’s strict boundaries in the name of assisting any survivors. She sees something she isn’t supposed to see, and now she’s the one aware of a conspiracy that all the men in town want to bury. Initial suppression tactics include lies and gaslighting, but what will happen if Alice refuses to be silenced?
The film does do some things right, especially in its early stages. Wilde has done a great job of creating an aesthetically-pleasing town with just a hint of menace in its over-the-top perfection. The same can be said of the film’s clever camerawork. I’ll also throw out a compliment to the casting of Harry Styles. Not because Styles is himself is particularly good, but because I know we could have gotten that awful Shia LaBeouf in the role. Good on Wilde to cut bait there. Styles is a much better fit for the role of the initially-ideal husband, though LaBeouf would admittedly be a better fit for some creepier later scenes, if only because he’s naturally believable as a creep. And the film’s initial pacing and building of suspense is compelling, even if the payoff is a letdown.
Indeed the payoff squanders whatever goodwill the movie had earned until that point. It’s the sort of ending that immediately brings to mind a hundred other movies that have done this sort of twist before and better. It doesn’t “work” for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t buy that the villains are smart enough to pull it off. It’s worth noting that the movie gets to sputtering well before its third act, thanks to some clumsy exposition-dump dialogue and nonsensical hallucination imagery that simply exists for the sake of getting some interesting shots for the trailers.
“Don’t Worry Darling” takes viewers on a journey that mirrors public perception of the film itself. At first it looks promising, maybe even award-worthy. But gradually things fall apart until it’s an unsalvageable mess. That’s not to say it’s a mess from start to finish, and it’s a better movie than history will probably remember, but it does end up in the place that history will remember.
“Don’t Worry Darling” is rated R for sexuality, violent content and language. Its running time is 122 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.