I want to take you back to a simpler time; 2019. It was an amazing year for films and sent two stars into the stratosphere of success. One of them was actor turned first time director Olivia Wilde, who directed Booksmart, one of my favourite coming of age comedies. The other was Florence Pugh. Having previously impressed in Outlaw King, The Little Drummer Girl and Lady Macbeth, she spent 2019 releasing three films in which she delivered yet more incredible performances. After the streak of Fighting With My Family, Midsommar and Little Women (for which she became Academy Award nominee Florence Pugh), how could you not be ecstatic about what she was going to do next?
As it turns out, what came next was a collaboration between the two, a collaboration I was obviously immediately excited for. The form it was going to take was a thriller called Don’t Worry Darling, based on an existing screenplay that Wilde’s Booksmart co-writer Katie Silberman was to tinker with to better fit their sensibilities. So sure, we’re leaving the zone of comedy that Wilde proved so profficient in, but I was cautiously optimistic. I just had to sit put and wait for my trust in these two creative forces to be rewarded. So I did. I waited. And waited. And tried to ignore the stuff that started to come out. Rumours of rifts on set. Of affairs with pop star co-leads. The rumours grew faster and more furious, from (alleged) shouting matches to (alleged) spitting contests, putting more and more cracks in my faith. It was as if I was being taunted by Hollywood, the title itself staring back at me and daring me to still believe. Don’t worry, darling. Everything will turn out all right.
And so now Don’t Worry Darling is here. It actually exists, you can actually go see it in the cinema. But I haven’t told you what it is yet, or if it’s any good. So let’s do that. Our story is one that feels very familiar. Alice is a housewife living in a picture perfect fifties suburbia, being a docile housewife to Jack. In the morning, Jack goes off to work at “the Victory Project”, while Alice stays at home cooking, cleaning and chatting with the other housewives. Everyone is pretty happy with their lot, but told not to question what the men do at work. We, as the audience, have alarm bells ringing at this immediately. Alice takes a little longer to twig that actually, maybe, everything in Victory isn’t virtually perfect.
But that brings me to my first big issue with Darling, which is the structure. The first five minutes paint a very content picture of domesticity, until Alice realises that something here isn’t right. We spend THE REST OF THE MOVIE in this state of not-rightness, which gets exhausting at the length the film insists on. As the audience, we’re expecting this world to not be as it seems. Once Alice is also onboard, we’re ready to discover what is going down, but we are given almost no hints towards the true purpose of Victory until the very moment where the rug is rudely pulled out from under us. I have plenty to say about what is hidden under that rug, but we’ll save that for a little bit later. The point is, there needs to be a sense of escalation and its absence makes the majority of the film feel aimless. We’re just sitting here, waiting, hoping that soon Alice will find the thing that reboots the momentum of this film into something tastily watchable.
Speaking of tasty and watchable, it’s a very hot cast that Wilde has gathered here! But can they act? Hmm. Well. Tricky question that. I’m going to start by saying that for the most part, the cast are all doing solid work here. Throughout the film there are moments or casting choices that feel a little like missteps, but those are generally justified retroactively by things that are being hidden from us. For example, Nick Kroll feels like a bit of a rogue choice to play a charming fifties househusband, and his performance confirms that feeling. There are some moments where he shouts that are the wrong side of funny (God, we’re really skating around spoilers here) and then there are some moments where the charm he’s meant to ooze is just… Not quite there? It’s not a bad performance per se, just one that needs the justification that the end is going to deliver. Similarly hard done by the twist are basically all the female performers. Whether it’s Gemma Chan or Kate Berlant, the wives of Victory feel slightly too hollow. And again, from the outset, it’s clear that something isn’t right. We can tell that they are not as they should be, but it doesn’t justify these women occupying the role of hollow Fabergé eggs. Unlike the men of this world though, the twist doesn’t quite redeem their performances. You can feel these talented actors pushing at the seams to let their talent flow freely, but not quite reaching it. Ironically, the men are all justified by the awful end, the women are left in the lurch.
Still, there are three main performances I want to focus on. First, and probably most notable, is Harry Styles. You are probably familiar with Harry Styles, probably not as an actor though. There is a reason for this, which is that he isn’t a great actor. Is he as bad as I expected? No. That viral clip of him shouting really is as bad as his performance gets, the rest of the time IT IS FINE! And yet, he is the draw for the film. To be honest, I have very little to add to the discourse on him. Plenty of better actors could have done great with this role, but he is fine and is bringing people in. I think Styles especially struggles though when compared to the good performers around him, because they are so particularly talented. Chris Pine (a very underrated Chris) is great in the role of the leader of Victory. The role itself is not that interesting, but he does what he can with it, being charismatic and just a little dangerous. He has a tasty little dinner scene, you’ll know it when you see it, it’s a treat of OTT slimebag acting. You all know who I think the best actor in this film is though, it’s obviously Florence Pugh. She is my wife, I love her and those close to me are willing to forgive me if I someday drop everything to follow her around the globe. She is a damn great actor and while she’s so much better when the material is good (see Little Women), she can still elevate pretty crappy material. That’s what this situation is. As Alice, Pugh is always completely believable and empathetic, even when the narrative is not, and she is the thing about Darling that I can most enthusiastically praise. Pugh never does no wrong, we love her! All of us! No exceptions, total adoration!
I’m gonna dip into spoilers soon but before we do, some loose technical praise! My big problems with this film are structural and narrative based, so there’s actually a lot else that I do like. The look of the film has to be convincing to sell the later subversion and it is! Matthew Libatique does the cinematography and you get that sense of beautiful chaos that he lends to Darren Aronofsky’s films, but more composed than usual (apart from the moments where it isn’t composed, obviously). I’m also a big fan of the score from John Powell. There are a lot of tortured voices polluting and permeating the soundscape and that works for me. Music that sounds weird is my thing, sue me. Honestly, whenever I praise specific technical elements, I find myself a bit at a loss for who to praise. Do I praise production design, costume design or cinematography for this specific look? As someone who has never made a film, it’s tough to know, but I think I can just say across the board, good job! If you worked on this film, a film made during the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic, you did a great job just to successfully make the film. The fact that it looks or sounds good is a miracle. Well done, sincerely.
This is the spoiler paragraph. If you don’t want spoilers, just skip it! But this film has been out almost a month, and I just have to talk about the insane and frustrating ending. Essentially, it turns out that the thing that’s going on is that we’re not in the real world, but a virtual world in which all the women are subservient captives and the men get to keep living their outside lives. It’s an incel thing, they’re upset that they don’t get enough attention from the women in their lives, so they kidnap them and put them into a world where they have no choice but to love them. Again, I knew that there would be something up, but the moment where this got revealed caused me to audibly mutter “oh no”. It makes no sense, compared to a version of this story where it’s all in Alice’s head, or one where we are in a real cult-like setting out in the desert. All the unexplained bits in this scenario are I guess glitches in the computer? That answer isn’t satisfying, but something has to try and fill the logic hole. It’s never explained, because the twist comes too late in the film to get any accompanying explanation aside from a handful of throwaway lines, which include my favourite line from the whole film, “when a man dies in here, he also dies in the real world”. Mainly, I think I hate this as a twist because it feels unnecessary. Why add that digital aspect unless you want to cheaply update this kind of narrative for the 21st century? Oh! It’s exactly because it’s a cheap and easy way to make your story feel relevant, because the villain is a podcast host. I hate it, but I’m almost tired of hating it now. Almost.
So it isn’t very good! I find the Don’t Worry Darling experience frustrating because it’s not without merit, but it is so essentially hobbled. The core of what this film is is broken. That means that no matter how pretty it looks, no matter how delightfully dense the soundscape is, even no matter how great Florence Pugh is, the film sinks. Once that twist hits, I defy you to start defending this mess. And yet it’s not even the worst film I’ve seen this year! Not even close! Not even the worst film of the month! I just think that it’s broken in interesting ways, which I’ve enjoyed discussing with friends and coworkers. So if you’re still tempted, sure! Go see it! You will have loads of things to talk about, which you might not get from a better movie like Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. But also, you should watch Mrs Harris Goes to Paris while you’re at the cinema. A tasty double bill, as a treat. Something sweet to wash away the taste of disappointment that Don’t Worry Darling still leaves me with.
Thank you all for bearing with me, as I crawl out of my accidental hiatus. I’ve just been very busy and not able to control my time quite as well as before, plus I’m doing more hours than ever at my work. I still enjoy writing but I struggle to both make the time and to get myself excited enough to write about anything. As such, some projects have fallen to the side. There was the second Twin Peaks: The Return post, a post about Kurt Vonnegut in film and something about Robert Eggers’ films, all of which may one day manifest themselves fully. But really, I will just continue to write the stuff that I’m passionate about. I’d like to do more pitching and paid writing, though again that’s about seizing the moment and writing the right thing at the right time. Thank you again for all still reading these. When someone sends me a message or says to me in person that they like my writing, it makes my day. It’s the motivation that keeps me writing and I’m genuinely fine about very few people reading my words, because what matters is when one of those people (one of you guys) enjoys my silly little ramblings.